It begins with a large white tepee gently glowing stage left and then, miraculously appearing on the right, out of the darkness – three pairs of nimbly, floating, flowing, disembodied white-gloved hands which hover momentarily, to form a narrating mouth.
Puppetry is an ancient and fundamental way of telling stories which probably pre-dates even human actors. As kids we all did it, investing objects with life through the fertility of our imagination. Pinocchio is a superb, theatrically enchanting production by the Jasmine Vardimon Company which taps into that ingenious stream of innocent human creativity. It unfolds a dream like world, through dance, mime and magical lighting.
Forget the Disney version. This is a reworking of the original text by Carlo Collodi, which was first serialised for children in 1881, as a fable about puppet creation. Actually, the author conceived it as a symbol for the newly unified Italy. It tells a sometimes dark, disturbing story.
It was written at a time in Italy when there was much debate about whether there was any necessity to educate peasant children, since they were destined to nothing but hard labour, to becoming “donkeys”.
The production is multi-layered, charming and disturbing in turn, but never sentimental. Within the closed tepee we see the shadow play of a block of pine being carved into a puppet by the old carpenter. Emerging from the chrysalis like tent, this stiff wooden puppet slowly tentatively learns to walk, then to go to school, watched over by a magic fairy with jelly fish arms. Through various misadventures he becomes a donkey, back again into a puppet and finally, by learning truly human emotions – he becomes a real boy. Thus Collodi found a way to express his hopes and fears for the emerging Italy.
You don’t actually need to know any history to be delighted by this production. Though, I occasionally thought of early IOU theatre. No live musicians, but with an eclectic, atmosphere enhancing, musical score; visually ravishing, physical theatre; tenderness and quirkiness of character. All expressed in stunning highly detailed choreography. And continuous shape shifting
A tavern scene finds Pinocchio quizzically leaning for support against a huge yellow door frame, which is gently swaying. It was both funny and disturbing, far too reminiscent of the heady nausea of my miss -spent youth. Then as a table of carousers flies up to the ceiling the mood lightens…
By making the whole set double as a marionette puppet theatre, every level of the stage was used. This opened up possibilities: for the dancers to become puppets, swinging through the air; for the marionette Pinocchio, to eventually become human; to hint at questions about human relationships and the ropes which bind or facilitate our movement. Who is manipulating? Who is being manipulated?
Edgy, scary, at times. It is a moral tale. But my friend was concerned that Pinocchio “learned to be independent” by apparently suffering from bullying. A little girl in the audience became quite emotional. I empathized with that. My mother said that as a child she found Punch and Judy terrifying.
It is a long bitter-sweet tradition to which Jasmine Vardimon has added a whole new 21st century slant.
Her dancers are all stunning, with bodies of strong, immensely flexible, rubber and the intelligence to convey great subtlety.
There has been some criticism in recent years that Britain is falling behind in dance education. Jasmin takes a positive approach .She has a vision to nourish talent and potential in young people, helping to train a new generation of dancers with her charity the Jasmin Vardimon Education Company.