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The Red Balloon at the Linbury Studio Theatre

Posted on April 9, 2009

So far, family shows have been the biggest dance success at the Linbury Studio Theatre. Following Will Tuckett’s dance/theatre hybrids – The Wind in the Willows, Pinocchio – Aletta Collins has created a show without words, mixing dance with puppetry. It’s a simple, bouncy tale, most vivid in the interaction between people and puppets.

The story comes from Albert Lamorisse’s almost wordless 1956 film and children’s story. Pascal, the young hero, finds a red balloon hooked to a lamp post. The balloon is a character as much as a prop: it has a mind of its own, following the hero or running away. In Collins’ version, Pascal has a baby sister, who absorbs much of his mother’s time, and faces classroom bullies. The balloon becomes his friend at a time when he feels isolated.

The puppets, designed by Rachael Canning and worked by Liz Walker of Faulty Optic Theatre of Animation, are a substantial part of the show. Walker is on stage, dressed in black, visibly working the different characters. When a circus passes through, it is introduced by a puppet monkey, teasing the young audience. Pascal’s baby sister is also a puppet. Both characters are made of soft felt, not too naturalistic, but moving with beautifully-observed precision. The baby crawls out of her pram, sidling over the blankets with dogged naughtiness.

Giles Cadle’s sets evoke 1950s France. Lamp posts, with real lights, frame the stage; they can slide to new positions, defining different street scenes. The classroom has a door, an inner window and plenty of desks, which the child characters move into patterns before getting on with work and quarrels. The music, by Street Furniture (Mieko Shimzu and Peter Morris) is full of buoyant accordion and percussion detail.

Collins tells the story in bold strokes, helped by a charismatic cast, but her more elaborate dance scenes lose momentum. When the children run riot behind their teacher’s back, the timing should be tighter and funnier. The chase after the balloon lacks aggression: the real kids of Lamorisse’s movie are much wilder and tougher.

Dominic North makes a spontaneous Pascal, wide-eyed at the balloon’s antics, playing a child without self-consciousness. The choreography has a lot of naturalistic mime: climbing a lamp post to unhook the balloon, walking home, getting ready for school. North’s movement is downright and straightforward, opening out for the dance scenes.

Zoë was born in Edinburgh, and saw her first dance performances at the Festival there. She is the dance critic of The Independent, and has also written for The Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman and Dancing Times. In 2002, she received her doctorate from the University of York for a thesis on “Nationhood and epic romance: Ariosto, Sidney, Spenser”. She is the author of The Royal Ballet: 75 Years and The Ballet Lover’s Companion.

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