Artistic Director and Choreographer: Jasmin Vardimon
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
For Jasmin Vardimon – one of the UK’s most original and creative dance theatre-makers – the decision to tackle a classic or children’s story as her next project – to create an adaptation of Pinocchio – may seem odd at first. But her style of cleverly articulated physical theatre, big characterisation, quirky humour, offbeat narrative and sense of place, combined with text and innovative technology and inspired and diverse musical collages quickly allays any concerns.
Vardimon has based the show on the original book The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi in Italy in 1883, which was written during the then-current philosophical and moral debate in Italy on the importance and nature of education. Could peasants be educated, and could education make them ‘real boys’ or are they mere ‘donkeys’ – fit for work and little else? This fulfils Vardimon’s usual social investigation brief.
In the book, Pinocchio, a wooden puppet boy goes on a difficult journey of discovery, where he learns what it means to be human and to recognise and understand emotions in himself and others. Vardimon has steered largely clear of the classic 1940s Disney version, which literally and metaphorically brightened up the darker and more disturbing elements of the original and made the narrative more focused on the important of telling the truth. However, Anyone familiar with the film would find it useful for mapping the narrative.
Vardimon’s Pinocchio is staged within an extraordinary set of wood, wires and rope (by Guy Bar-Amotz and Vardimon) that sets the universe of the action in a marionette theatre. The predominant colours are black and yellow. This creates a world in which all the cast are either puppets or puppet operators, which enables them to perform with the kind of exaggerated character that brings this story vividly to life and to manipulate the impressive scenic elements that transform the stage into Gepetto’s workshop, the marionette theatre, an inn, the Land of Toys and the belly of the whale.
Narration (Steven Glaser) is used sparingly throughout, his ethereal face cleverly made from the white gloved hands of three blacked-out dancers. The show opens with a clever human musical box device that introduces all the characters as puppets. The staging, which uses large-elements of wooden scenery and props and fabric, manipulated by the cast using aerial techniques is quite remarkable and as magical for adults as younger audiences. This somehow creates wonderful illusions while keeping the mechanics of the operation in full view, which is intriguing.
Often though, your attention is drawn by the action that rarely flags and you only notice the rigging when it is central to the scene, such as in the wondrous marionette theatre section, where Pinocchio ruins the show with his unmanaged inquisitiveness. Although human marionettes on wires doing Beyoncé is not exactly ruining the show. The Inn of the Red Lobster section is an astounding piece of physical theatre.
Vardimon’s choreography, created with the cast, is witty and vividly-drawn, underlining what a suitable medium for storytelling physical dance is. Maria Doulgeri’s Pinocchio is a delight of disconnected limbs and sustained childlike emotion. The villainous double act of the Fox and Cat, who lead Pinocchio astray, are a sinister marvel of jazzy, animalistic mischief. In fact, every character fizzes and pops and perfectly negotiates the fine line between darkly cartoonish and manipulated puppet character in a darker, larger world. Vardimon tonally conveys character and narrative and as well as includes elements of pure physical choreography. Interestingly, this arguably makes Pinocchio Vardimon’s most classical work, for all its modernity. The transformative power of the body in collaborative movement to create illusion imaginatively evokes dark animation, illustration and magic.
It has to be said that some knowledge of the story is helpful in following the narrative as there are some points where it is not entirely clear what is going on and where Pinocchio is on his journey home to actual boyhood. However, Pinocchio is staged with incredible flair and imagination and does create moments of stunned delight, perhaps because you can sometimes see how it is done: and sometimes not. The characterisation and physical performances are outstanding, creating an authentic sense of wonder and some moments of genuine unease and emotion.