Posted on November 2, 2017
I’m not sure if this is a confession or a declaration of interest, but I’ve now seen Jasmin Vardimon’s Pinocchio five times, including a full-run dress rehearsal. Just like the puppet’s nose, it has grown on me.
Initially, I thought the production had magical moments but was over-long, especially since – at 90 minutes – it was without an interval. Now, armed with the enriching experience of multiple viewings alongside a greater understanding of Carlo Collodi’s book, The Adventures of Pinocchio, I better appreciate the authenticity of the narrative structure enveloped within Vardimon’s unique brand of innovative dance theatre.
In turning half of the book’s 36 chapters into 18 scenes, Vardimon – thankfully, for the many tiny children in her audiences – omitted the episodes in which Pinocchio’s feet are burned off and, another, when he carelessly kills the Talking Cricket (not called Jiminy – that was a Walt Disney invention) by tossing away a hammer that squashes it. In the novel, the cricket comes back as Pinocchio’s conscience-pricking “guardian”, appearing to bear the marionette no ill will for “his” murder.
Despite these cuts, Vardimon’s greatest achievement is to produce a version of Pinocchio that still deals with adult themes but nonetheless can be enjoyed by parents and children, alike. Her interpretation is especially successful in excising the spectre of Disney and his 1940 film, to which most young people – including those who have now aged to senior citizenship – have been conditioned.
Vardimon references the Disney legacy, partly through the black light theatre techniques that provide a wonderful cartoonish narrator, with his kindly, booming voice (not explicitly, but apparently, the ghostly cricket; its ethereality represented by disembodied blue fluorescent gloves that provide animated facial features); and then, much more directly, in the wonderful pastiche of Lady and The Tramp where a romantic two-feet-faced couple (and, I mean, that their faces comprised two bare soles with painted features) slurp a single strand of spaghetti until they kiss. These moments of pure fantasy built the capacity to keep hordes of young children absolutely quiet and completely still, but for the odd toilet break.
The extent to which Vardimon’s production is faithful to the book is remarkable given that so much of the literary imagery would seem impossible to replicate in dance theatre, yet her team has succeeded in creating so many magical, inventive coups de théâtre, successfully integrating all the creative contributions. The Craftsmanship of Gepetto, the old woodworker who carves Pinocchio from a block of pinewood, is evocatively illustrated by the human representation of a mechanical automaton in the form of a “wooden” music box that tops and tails the performance. The turning of the characters on the box is achieved by a complex support mechanism of balance and counter-balance amongst the eight dancers.
Vardimon’s own set design (in partnership with her dramaturg, Guy Bar-Amotz) is replete with imagery that represents wood and craftsmanship. Gepetto’s workroom is enclosed within a Tardis-like tepee, his artisanship within being conveyed through giant silhouettes (Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting design is absolutely integral to the work’s success). The tent also turns into a magical, conical dress, shimmering with stars, for the beautiful Blue Fairy (Aoi Nakamura). It then opens out to become the Great Marionette Theatre, in which complicated pulleys are attached to the human representations of a puppet pair (Silke Muys and André Rebelo). Their routine of an impatient housewife and her lazy husband is brilliantly conveyed through aerial skills, enabled by the other dancers acting as counter-balances. Both the set and costume designs (by Abigail Hammond) are excellent; perhaps the only disappointment being the dark grey sheets that represent the stomach of the whale, which swallows Gepetto, his floating boat, and much later, Pinocchio.
Vardimon’s choreography has always had the capacity to thrill and, often, to appear as if that form of movement has never been seen before. This is certainly true of the striking moment that shows how Gepetto manipulates Pinocchio from solid wood into a pliable, flexible body with the ability of human movement; imagery that is achieved through the superb interaction and trust between David Lloyd’s Gepetto and Maria Doulgeri’s Pinocchio. Doulgeri is especially remarkable as a girl playing a puppet that wants to be boy; she is present almost throughout and possesses a remarkable movement dexterity that Vardimon uses to great effect.
Then there is the wonderfully descriptive oily, slithering side-to-side movement for the cat and the fox, played by Estéban Lecoq and Uroš Petronijevic. The latter also delivers a strong and menacing presence as the theatre boss with such powerful lungs that he can blow other characters off the stage. This is a strong group sequence. Another – typical of Vardimon’s uniform, swaying/rolling, ensemble movement – comes when the boys who are gorging on play (in the Land of Toys) are turned into the “donkeys” of manual labour, whipped into productivity by the evil gang master. In philosophical terms, this scene lies at the heart of Pinocchio’s essential moral: those who want to be “real boys” go to school and learn.
This is a very cleverly constructed work that contains several stand-out, magical moments and is greatly enabled by an aptly descriptive score, designed by Vardimon herself, that contains snippets from The Chemical Brothers and Beyoncé, through Shostakovich to Dutch street organs and accordions from the Faroe Islands.
Above all else, it is a work that is realised by an outstanding cast. It would be insulting to describe them simply as dancers. They are, of course, but also magicians, black light theatre artists, aerialists, stage technicians, illusionists, acrobats and mime artists. The action pulsates with no loss of momentum as each scene transitions into the next, seamlessly, and this only succeeds through a multi-talented ensemble that makes light work out of intensely complicated technical arrangements, in which the unseen choreography of activity in the dark backstage is an essential part of an arresting performance.
Pictured: David Lloyd as Gepetto and Maria Doulgeri as Pinocchio. Photograph by Tristam Kenton.