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Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist

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Revisiting the Past: An Interview with Master Puppeteer Basil Twist

Richard Termine

Twenty years ago, Basil Twist wowed audiences with his mesmerizing abstract fantasy Symphonie Fantastique, presented in a small basement space at the HERE Arts Center in Soho. Twist, then 28, conjured up a beguiling and phantasmagoric world inspired by the evocative music of Hector Berlioz's 19th-century composition of the same title. Aided by lights, dyes, and bubbles, he created his magic by manipulating pieces of fabric, feathers, plastic, vinyl, and fishing lures—all suspended in a small tank filled with water.

In the two decades since, Twist has come into his own as a master puppeteer and international theater artist, continuing to make his own distinctly individual works while also collaborating with other artists both on and off Broadway, as well as in the ballet world. He also made a small foray into the world of Hollywood, contributing to Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His dazzling creativity has been honored with Obie, Drama Desk, and Bessie awards, as well as a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Proving you can go back to the past, Twist has returned to HERE to recreate his original 1988 career-making triumph. This time, Symphonie Fantastique is presented at the theater's main stage, with five puppeteers working in a water tank double the size of the one featured in the original production and with the Berlioz score performed live with dramatic flair by pianist Christopher O'Riley (host of NPR's From the Top). As an additional perk, Twist pulls back the curtain to allow audience members to visit backstage after the show to meet the puppeteers and discover how the magic is created.

Recently, I got to sit down with Twist to discuss his work, new and old, and the direction he's going in as he approaches 50.

Symphonie Fantastique seems like a major turning point in your career.

I went to puppetry school in France and then I had five years of playing in this soup of New York City in the '90s. I was performing in nightclubs and working as a puppeteer for other people like Theodora Skipitares and Roman Paska. I had also made a show of my own—a small one-person show that was part of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater—and I got on the cover of The Puppetry Journal. I thought that it was about as far one can go and that I had made it! After Symphonie Fantastique a whole other life started for me.

Take us back to when the piece first came together for you. I understand it was triggered when you discovered a cracked aquarium on a sidewalk.

At the time, I was living with my boyfriend in a small studio in the West Village. I needed my own space to work so I got another little studio that I found through an ad in the back of the Village Voice and that's where I just played. So yeah, I saw this aquarium and brought it back to my studio and I played with it. I used to get everything for my work from Materials for the Arts, which is still an awesome organization. And I also used to get lots of stuff from the street. It felt like there was better garbage on the street back then!

Did you start with the intention of creating something abstract?

When I was in France, there was a festival of puppetry and music. It was provocation to explore the relationships between puppetry and music and it immediately made me think that I want to see something abstract relating to music. I know I'm not the first. Hanne Tierney, who I worship, was doing it before me. Her abstraction was always related to text—actual drama—and then she'd abstract the characters. I wanted to just have the music. Although with Symphonie Fantastique a narrative always comes in. It's inescapable, as you just project things into it. When I watch the show now, there's this particular moment where I always see a face. And I didn't intend that. It's just the fabric and the light. I wonder how many people can see it.

So, I wanted to do an abstract piece and I knew that it would have a relationship to music. Again, it was something from the street. I was walking past a record shop that had milk crates on the sidewalk and I saw an album of Symphonie Fantastique with this weird psychedelic cover. It had the image of sunflower with two faces. So I bought the record. I also remembered the title from my childhood because my parents had it in their record collection. I listened to the record and then I had these fantastic dreams.

The piece has five movements and I had this really ambitious idea that I was going to do each movement with a different element—smoke, fire. I'd already played with water [in the aquarium], so I decided I was going to do the third movement underwater. Then I got my first grant from the Henson Foundation to develop something and I bought a larger aquarium. But it was so heavy and hard to move that I decided to do the whole piece underwater. The main thing was the idea of abstraction, and then the water thing was just a cool way to achieve that. It was just very carefree the way it came about.

What was it like recreating the show 20 years later?

Well, this is essentially the same production that I opened in San Francisco, soon on the heels of the success of the original show but just a little bit bigger. I thought of changing things, but as we were getting into it, I realized that it would be impossible because it's so densely knit together. The props had been in storage so I decided to just try to get it back the way it was. To a degree, it became a bit of a museum archival effort. I needed to replace certain things—like this purple plastic thing. But then I couldn't because that store closed on Canal Street 15 years ago and you can only get that stuff now if you order it online from China. I was so frustrated because I'm such a tactile person and I used to go to Canal Street and just touch stuff. If you can't see how flexible it is you don't know if it will work in the same way.

What about the lighting? Hasn't that technology changed over the years?

This new stuff is better overall but there were these moments which we created with those old tools and whatever limitations or qualities that they had got integrated into the choreography of the show. We used to use color scrollers for color changes. The wet environment was not friendly to any mechanical thing so those things would foul a lot. But I miss this one moment in the show where you would see the movement of the scrollers when the lights changed colors. It was a physical thing because light in this show is a physical thing. Now we use LED lights, which just change from one color to another without that magic color wipe. Also, incandescent lights are able to get really low, and I use a lot of darkness in the show. The LED lights just pop off and pop on and we can't get dark in the same way.

Was it difficult to train others to work the show? Is it scripted now, so you don't have to be present backstage yourself?

It's very scripted to a degree. The water has its improvisation, but the puppeteers have a very severe track—the choreography between themselves. Over the years all these wonderful artists have gravitated to me, so I have this great community and family of puppeteers who have worked on many of my shows. This really is the A team. It's amazing for me to be able to now watch the show and to actually give notes—especially to the guy who's doing my part. Because I know I would get by a lot on some indescribable feeling that I have that I can't translate into words. Even when I was teaching him I would have to do it and show him. Now I can give notes. Not everybody can take the notes I give, but they make sense to us in that world. I can say, “Can you make your flashlight more lonely?,” and they are all game to receive it.

You mentioned the water as something you cannot control. Does it behave differently every night?

To a degree. But I understand the wildness of the water, and that wildness is choreographed in. The best example of that is the moment in the third movement where I put this silver stuff in and it just falls. That's the moment where I tell the puppeteers, “Don't mess it up. Let it do exactly what it's supposed to do.” I can always tell if they have hit it or they're pushing it or they put it in the wrong way. Their job is to get it all ready, put it in, and then stand back. It's a little different every night and it's always perfect. Because it's like physics: it's water currents, it's gravity, it's buoyancy, and it's reflection and light—and it just all comes together with this exquisite music playing. It's one of my favorite parts of the show.

How did your career develop after the initial run of Symphonie Fantastique?

I never went back to water. I did Petrushka immediately after because I really wanted to do something extremely figurative with high-level technique. There's an incredible ensemble of puppeteers who came out of that show, and they're great New York puppeteers who I rarely see because they're so busy. Then I did these wonderful collaborative shows, where there's a whole other gesture that's trying to happen and I'm just supporting it. I was lucky to work with Christopher Wheldon and started to do a few ballets. It's an enchanting world, but that world has its goals and its purpose and I'm like the little sprinkles on top. I also still work with Lee Breuer, bringing my magic to his incredible force. I think we have a great synergy there. In between, I would make the Basil Twist shows and try to make them be really different from that last one. So Dogugaeshi, the Japanese piece I made at the Japan Society—it was all sliding screen doors and I got to go to Japan. I actually came back to the work of Symphonie Fantastique with the Rite of Spring [in 2014], although on a totally different scale. It took me that many years to get back to that.

What exactly was your involvement with Alfonso Cuarón's film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?

Cuarón came to see Symphonie Fantastique 20 years ago and he was very taken with it. He hadn't even made Y Tu Mamá También at the time. When I see that film, which was the sensation, I actually see water things in there too. Then he got asked to take on the Harry Potter franchise. They hadn't even released the second movie yet and were already changing gears with a new director. When he was revving up he was insistent that he didn't want to be stuck only using computer graphics. He wanted to have some real magic and he asked that I be a part of it. So I made the dementors underwater. It was like a Symphonie Fantastique puppet, but it actually had a head and hands and we just moved it underwater. We did lots of film tests but in the end, of course, they did it with computers, but the stylistic model you can see looks like Symphonie Fantastique. It was small, but it's a nice thing.

To get back to this current celebration of your career milestone from 20 years ago, how do you feel about revisiting Symphonie Fantastique?

I'm still processing it. I was worried that it wouldn't go well and I'm glad that it obviously is. There's a shape to the two decades and this production of Symphonie Fantastique is a lovely bow to have—all these things that fed in between the bookends. It's the same show, but it feels fresh and still alive. Coming back to HERE also definitely has a shape. I love this institution and I'm so grateful that they're behind this and so happy that it's happening. This is the artist that I wanted to be 20 years ago and I'm so glad that it's still true.

What's coming up next for you?

I got the Rome Prize so I'm going to the American Academy in Rome in the fall. It's a weird thing because you can't actually plan for this. You need to make alternative plans, and then this thing shows up. My alternative plan was to make a new show in the smaller space downstairs at HERE—a piece called Grandma's Russian Painting, which is very much inspired by my grandmother Dorothy Williams. I was calling it a performative installation. It's a very personal thing. Anyway, I'm postponing it because I'm going to Rome.

Aren't you also approaching your half-century?

Exactly. I will turn 50 in Rome. So it will be a year there, like an artist retreat. You can use it as a specific time to focus on something. I did propose a subject to them: a show that I've been talking about for 10 years. It's an erotic show—dangerously erotic and not in the comedic way of puppets having sex—that's maybe abstract in way, taking the inanimate and giving a vital sensuality to it. So hopefully that will happen. But they made it clear that the time may also be spent to recharge, a time to seek inspiration, a time to reflect. And what more poetic place to do that than in Rome.