I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. Yet this journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part three of six posts. Bon Courage!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten yards away from us against a rough textured pale stone wall and against a tall brunette girl who was dressed in a white robe. Her hair was minimized being pulled back. She appeared to us almost as a statue from classical antiquity. Written words scrolled horizontally on the wall, against her human form. She began to speak in a clear burning voice. From what I could gather with my faulty French she was speaking about war and about what kind of people we are in relationship to war and to fear. The projection and the lights vanished. In the utter dark she held a wooden box that was then opened in a way loosely reminiscent of Pandora. Light shone from the box. She moved spectrally towards us asking questions as she paused to place broken puppets on nearly invisible black boxes. Where does war come from? She advanced closer and closer to us with her crippled marionettes. All were white or dirty beige, and while missing limbs, they were clearly homunculi, though none had defining features, hair, clothing, even color. She continued speaking about war and fear as she little by little drew nearer and nearer to us.
She stopped directly in front of us before two waist high felt covered platforms. Transfixing our eyes she removed the last two puppets from the box. Though, like the others, they were both featureless and white they were also both completely intact and quite clearly male and female. I say they were featureless but this was not true of their faces. While hairless and unclothed, like unfinished dolls off an assembly line, their faces were genuinely distinct, even riveting. This may have something to do with their eyes, which caught the light and reflected it back. The puppeteer then began to speak through the female form. She turned to look at the male puppet and she began to ask him about fear and war and life. The robed girl then changed positions slightly and began to articulate the male figure in more defiant gestures and to speak his voice. Basically he said that there is no reason to fear, these things are all just a part of life. You have to be strong, get used to it. The female continued to plead with him to help her understand. He became more incensed, more frustrated. She in turn was pleading now too much, too pitifully and he in turn was now frighteningly angered. The puppeteer, though directly before us the entire time, so inhabited the characters, that she had disappeared into each of them by turns. Finally she posed them each in their habitual attitudes: the female homunculus in a supplicating position, the male in defiance. The white robed specter finally turned away from them repeating her questions about war then sadly proclaiming all that remains is the blood. The lights were then extinguished.
The small audience applauded the riveting performance with vigor. The program notes explained that Julia’s piece was an extract of a longer work by Perrine Griselin, entitled ‘Si le vent le dit’ (If Spoken by the Wind). The program notes also explained that all of the solos had to be collaborations with contemporary authors, that each piece was to be seven to ten minutes in length and that marionnettes (the French word for all puppets not just hanging string puppets as our similar word suggests) were optional. People casually began to leave the room. I stood there almost in shock. My thinking processes were now on a high state of alert. Where did war come from? Indeed. I wasn’t expecting this, not to be engaged so directly. I was beginning to get a glimpse of something, a possibility, a fork in a road not taken. But I still didn’t have the time to mull it over. The dark haired woman with the ponytail was beckoning us further along. There wasn’t much I could do but follow.
We scaled perhaps three or four floors worth of steps to arrive at a converted attic. The ceiling was angled like its roof directly above it. We sat in two slanted rows in simple chairs. An aisle divided the seating arrangement in half. The room’s lighting was muted though not black. A cabinet of sorts cobbled together out of scrap wood lay to our immediate left. Further in the wooden floor was strewn with carpenter’s dust and debris. And off to the right was a hastily constructed cross standing on a small wooden base. We sat in the dimly lit room awaiting whatever would come next. There was a dragging, scraping sound behind us. From the center aisle a tall young man with sandy brown hair and a face I immediately recognized as Polish dragged three crosses in on his shoulders. He also had a collection of little placards on bits of rope. If you wanted you could hang one around your neck. The placards were more than strongly reminiscent of Christ’s I.N.R.I. placard featured in so many works of art, but these were merely blank pieces of old wood. He turned slowly towards us as he passed. He stopped, then handed one of the placards to a man sitting in the audience. He gave the now condemned man the slightest and slyest of knowing smiles. He dispensed one more in a like manner then he dragged his cargo over to the center of his ‘stage’.
He began to speak as he set up the three extra crosses. He spoke of the names on the blank placards, names only he would know. He hung them on each of the four crosses. Olga’s name made him smile wistfully. But when he read one man’s name and as he hung the placard upon his crucifix he suddenly grabbed the cross in such a manner that he was transferred into the crucified man himself and he writhed and bellowed suddenly in a tortured voice. He continued on with a dialogue between crosses and the crucified. Unfortunately I did not pick up all of the nuances of his words, but it was clear to me that he was the crucifier and that all of these stories intersected at different points, and that the greatest harm had been wrought upon Olga. But then the story began to plumb a deeper level of questioning: why evil, why torture, why death. Yet our executioner could not escape his own culpability. He stretched out his hands in a gesture of both crucifixion and supplication. The lights dimmed to black. Then a thick beam of light radiated from the homemade cabinet, or was it a confessional. He crawled along through the nails and sawdust and other carpenter’s refuse towards the light in the box. He knelt before a small window and prayed earnestly in Polish. A strange cobweb textured blank white mask emerged from the dark. No words were spoken. Then it was submerged back into the void. Something was wrong. He investigated the cabinet. He pulled out a chair with the mask connected to it. He picked up the mask, looked through the back of it, placing it over his face. He turned it over in his hands, finally facing it, then holding it as a doubting Hamlet before the skull of Yorrick he studied it in silence. At last he said that perhaps it would be best if we didn’t go any further and just leave this where it is. The lights were then killed.
Applause, naturally, as before, and a head, mine, that was assembling puzzle pieces together at a furious rate. Then a quick check to the brochure: Polish all right, with a name nearly unpronounceable in the English tongue, Przemyslaw Piotrowski. This too was based on a text by Thierry Panchaud. Besides the fact that I wanted to engage the actor in a long conversation about the existence of God, my memory was also taking detailed notes of every element I observed. Having left my camera and audio recorder at the hotel I itched to put this experience into a bottle somehow, which is probably why I have such a good recollection of these performances. I have discovered that in life there is such a thing as ‘new time’. New time is present during experiences that are absolutely without precedent in one’s life; firsts in most categories – a first trip to Europe, a first day on a new job or a first kiss. With new time experiences we are completely present, taking in far more detail than normal. I can still vividly remember the first day of my initial visit to Switzerland back in 1978. All of the strangeness of the new thing colonizes our memory with powerful primary impressions. That is what was happening to me here at Charleville. I could sense that I had entered a zone that was completely distinct from anything else in my experience. However, before I could even acknowledge that, even as these things were being stenciled into me, I had to move yet again, back down the stairs, back through the wood shop, all the way beyond the felt covered hall of Julia Kovacs’ performance where I began to hear a woman’s voice piercing the air with haunted declamations recited in a tone of sad finality.
At the end of the long black hall we turned a corner into what was now another long room that felt like the brown dead leaves of autumn. Yellowing shafts of light illuminated the walls, which were covered in brown paper with handwritten words listed upon them. Tombstone rows of walnuts in sand were arrayed on the floor beneath the scrolls. Further back into the room was a shadowy forest of dangling signs. Even further back along the nethermost wall there were dead branches. Looking up at the wall a woman dressed in an ornate pale antique blouse and a floor length black skirt held a dark brown basket of walnuts while reading from the scrolls. Her voice was strong, prophetic, plaintiff. It was hard to believe that this was the same petite unassuming soft-spoken raven-haired girl who had ushered us into Julia Kovac’s presentation not even an hour before. Yet indeed it was, and the transformation had been accomplished without an extra milligram of make up. She had just thrown some sort of interior switch and voilà.
Her voice intoned what I assumed to be a history of an important man named Jean (John). She read aloud the noble attributes of his public life in a rhythmic tone. At last she knelt down and picked up a lone walnut and presented to us the personage of ‘Jean le mort’ (John the Dead). She turned and walked away from us further into the room. She stopped behind a table upon which rested an empty dresser drawer filled with sand. We followed her into the autumnal chamber and stopped in front of the table. To the sides of the sandbox were square wooden boxes filled what looked like twisted roots with round white faces. They were made of dead grapevine branches and simple little plaster faces; actually direct tributes to artist Jephan de Villiers and his sad world of Arbonia. She picked one up, a straight ‘root’; held it face up and very carefully moved it towards us, towards the edge of the drawer. As she did she imbued it with a personality, speaking its thoughts. She then planted it in the sand, leaving it there rooted in the earth. She took up another more twisted root-creature and likewise, yet in a different voice, she moved it next to its companion. Then she did it again and again and again; different shapes, different voices, now quizzical, now cooing, now serious, now childlike; until at last their seemed be nearly twenty of them in the box, in the sand all hungry, all digging in, looking for the human food. She paused. She picked up her basket again and walked us further into her strange autumnal labyrinth through a forest of signs made of brown cardboard or wood with handwritten French phrases that were too poetic for me to quite comprehend. She read from a few of them. When we arrived on the other side of the hanging signs she raised her hands across a couple of elaborately twisted grapevines, now representative of walnut trees, and she too had lights in her palms. Yet rather than use them for illumination, this time they were used for animation as the shadows of the dead branches now grew and grew against the last wall by her art. She approached a door off to the side. She rapped once and it opened. She bid us to step through into the light of day. As we passed she handed us each a walnut, a reminder of death, the fruit of our decomposition, an emblem of hope.
The sky has never seemed so blue.
After the last of our small cluster of wanderers had emerged from that autumn chamber the petite raven-haired girl stepped out behind us. As we stood in a lazy semicircle we clapped our hands. The girl, Aurelia Ivan, smiled sweetly as she resumed her unassuming status. The piece was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man). My head was exploding by this time with ideas both creative and intellectual. Still I couldn’t take the time to sift these things out. There was yet one more performance to take in to finish off the set. But this one was much more of a straight theatrical meditation on the Marilyn Monroe image of femininity by Morana Dolenc, based on a text by Eddy Pallaro. Since it was presented in a standard theatrical venue, without much that would connect it to the world of puppetry or object theatre, it didn’t set off many fresh alarm bells in my head, although it did contain an interesting mobile of small mirrors. That was probably just as well. My brain was requesting a teensy bit of time for vital reflection or philosophical musing, whichever came first. But that would have to be delayed a little while longer. Before I could even eat lunch, nay dinner, I still had one more thing to do; one more place to be.
28 / 6 /2020
Coming Soon: Hands in the Dark #4 – Missing Pieces
Or go back to the earlier sections
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. This journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part two of six posts. Profitez!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
There, a little ways down the road where it curved on Place Winston Churchill, stood a three story tall golden figure of a puppeteer, le Grand Marionnettiste. In his midsection was a small stage, that later I saw open up on the hour as marionettes performed for the passerby or for the children who came to sit on the benches facing the clock. To the right of the statue was the entrance to the Institut International de la Marionnette and the Ecole Superieure National des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). I entered the door and found the reception desk. A diligent French woman was sitting behind a wooden counter. “Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked. “Non.” Came the reply. I summoned up a bit more of my tentative French and asked if anybody else there did? “Une moment.” She picked up the phone to ask if a woman could come down to the office. In a minute a brunette woman with a formal manner and a conservative style came down. Her English was only slightly less halting than my French. I briefly explained the purpose of my visit and asked if it would be possible to conduct an interview with any of the teachers. Alas no, the teachers had all just viewed the student presentations and would be engaged with meetings discussing the progress of les élèves for the next two days. Fair enough. There was no point in trying to worm my way in any further. I had taken my chances in coming here, thus it was. But were the student performances open to the public? Yes they were. But I had missed the first rotation. The students gave their presentations twice. The first half had done their first shows the night before and had already finished up with the second round that morning. The last half was now presenting their first set and would be repeating it again at seven that evening. “C’est parfait.” I replied. And would I like to be signed up to attend? “Absolutement.”
Just then a group of perhaps ten people opened a door to the theatre behind us and walked through the building. A woman carrying a few papers stepped into the reception area. The formal brunette woman spoke rapidly to the dark haired woman in her thirties. The dark haired woman pleasantly agreed to something I didn’t quite catch; then she left to join the small group of people as they walked passed our window. The woman I had been speaking with said. “You can go with them now if you want. They have room for you.” “What about the shows this evening?” I asked. “You are signed up for that too. It’s the same rotation, but now you will miss two of the shows. But you should go now.” I thanked her in a beaucoup manner and left the building with haste. They were just rounding the corner. I sidled up to the back of the informal line and joined the procession. I had no idea where we were going.
The small group was staggered along the sidewalk as we proceeded down the street. A few people were speaking in French to each other, while several people like myself were simply quiet and strolling. The dark-haired woman leading the leisurely little parade turned back to see me and smiled politely. She handed me a simple program with titles and names listed on it. The march continued. Amongst the other voices I thought I could recognize a familiar accent. It sounded North American. A woman in her late forties or early fifties was talking to an older man.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“I’m not quite sure”, she replied. “The presentations are held in different places.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m From British Columbia.”
“Oh! I’m from just up the coast in Southeast Alaska.” Almost a thousand miles away but in northern Pacific coastal geographic and cultural terms a next door neighbor.
“Really”, she remarked, “how did you hear about the school?”
“I’m traveling around Europe looking for puppet theatres. I’m collecting information for a possible magazine article. What are you doing way over here?”
“My daughter is enrolled here. My husband and I came to see her presentation.”
“Has she performed yet?”
“Yes, twice, last night and this morning.”
“So I guess I won’t get to see her then.”
“No. Unfortunately she’s already finished her piece.”
“How long has she been here?”
“This is her third year.”
“What’s it like for her?”
“She loves it. But I think it was harder for her in the beginning.”
“It was different than she was expecting.”
“Will we see her today?”
“Yes. She should meet up with us.”
“If you could introduce me to her I’d like to ask her about her experiences here.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind talking with you.”
Overall we walked perhaps four city blocks before we turned to the left and continued at least another block north towards our final destination. The Canadian woman, Gerri Minaker, and I entered into a discussion concerning her last name and a similarly named family back in my rural Alaskan town, typical small town talk, the kind of thing that keeps people up at nights wondering about the strange coincidences in life. At last the dark-haired woman with a ponytail stopped before a large brown door made to fit in an arched stone corridor. She pulled out a skeleton key and jiggled it a bit in the lock. The door heaved open and she bid us to step inside. A couple of other students caught up with us, bringing our contingent up to perhaps fifteen people. One of the students seemed to be Gerri’s daughter. We stood quietly in a loose line-up in a compact antique gray courtyard waiting for the door to be closed behind us. All the while we were being patiently observed by a pair of probing eyes – the presentation had already begun.
A woman in her mid-twenties stood across from us in the ramshackle court gazing intentionally, directly at us. She neither asked for silence nor prepared us with an introduction; she didn’t need to. Her presence was potent enough to give us the message. She was attired in a simple black dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at a semi-formal New York dinner gathering. Her hair was pulled up giving her face not severity but a piercing quality nevertheless. Behind her, resting on rusted iron machinery and pipes, were a plethora of scarves: beige, brown and black. She chose a beige scarf, held it up somewhat and deliberately walked up to one the members of our party. She placed the scarf around his neck, all the while staring directly into his eyes. She said that the word, la parole, brings mirth. Then she turned silently and walked back to the hanging scarves. She carefully selected a brown one. She then turned and walked up to the next person, a woman, saying that la parole brings sorrow. She then repeated her actions with each person. The word is left or right, she spoke. And as she placed a beige scarf around my neck, I understood her to say that the word is the way to silence. I knew that the gist of the piece was going to revolve around the failure of dialogue in a relationship. After that she did not speak, but methodically placed scarves around the remaining necks. Finally she turned and walked back to the remaining scarves and drew them aside like curtains and bid us to descend into a darkened underground chamber. The cluster of watchers slowly began to move down a short narrow flight of stairs. They had to bend down under a rusted piece of metal to enter. There was a momentary delay, but at last we all made the descent.
We had entered a darkened place that to these American eyes could only be compared to a dungeon; a European might have just seen an old empty basement. The murky texture of the medieval stone walls was rough all the way athwart the low rounded ceiling. I had to hunch over along the edges of the chamber and never did feel comfortable fully erect. In opposite corners of the unlit room were dim lights that just barely cast our profiles in a heap of silhouettes along the dry dingy walls. We waited in a huddle, bunched together mostly in the center of the room all the while awaiting the next phase of our expedition. Gradually a pair of black shoes came down the steps. Her dress followed as she descended cautiously her arms above her body. She slid along the curved walls, a lithe somnambulist, a female Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, without the paint or makeup. Light beams emanated weakly from her palms from tiny light bulbs as they traced the stone and mortar. Along the floor lay a trail of water worn rounded stones the size of a person’s fist. She came to a strange contraption resting on a platform at the end of the confined room. The machine resembled a homemade meat grinder. She placed a few stones into it and cranked the handle.
Next she tipped over the other side of the stone grinder, sand drained out of it: the rocks breaking each other to atomic nothingness, the dissection of a discussion to infinitesimal matter. She continued her creeping along the row of stones arriving at a place where a broken doll-like creature exuded sand. Then she opened an iron door into an even darker chamber. She beckoned us further; confessing that what might seem to us like serenity was actually mortal silence in her reckoning. We squeezed ourselves into an awful claustral tomb of a room. She knelt on the floor beneath us, where seemingly random clusters of curved stones were stacked in fives. She slowly picked them up one at a time. She spoke almost simplistically as she unraveled the pattern hidden before us, a spiral, which she then followed to a final ‘stage’. A dimly lit ant farm shaped terrarium glowed weakly before us with a humanoid shadow figure lodged in the midst of a faded orange background. She slowly suffocated it with the sand, the details, the minutia, the abstractions of dialogues pulling the meaning of words apart.
At last she stepped away from us into a black chamber. She picked up one last larger stone shaped like a potato. After a poetic discourse with the stone on the nature of la parole, the word spoken, she finally said or asked for la dernier parole. To which the stone said nothing. She stepped into the darkness and disappeared.
After a moment of stunned silence we all applauded. And then she reappeared and took her well-deserved bows. I looked down at the program notes; her name was Julie Trezel. The piece was entitled Félicité, after a text by Thierry Panchaud. We climbed up another set of stairs. She greeted us as we passed. Her eyes filled with water, the intensity of the piece had taken its toll upon her. And there were other reasons that I would discover later. To say I was impressed was to say the least, but before I could really begin to confront my own impressions I found myself whisked off out of the door again on my way to the next performance.
More strolling ensued. The British Columbian woman spoke with her daughter this time round. I was preoccupied with new puppet contemplations. We eventually passed the front of a grand Catholic church: our contingent then turned to walk behind it. We entered a school or church building and stopped in a well-lit workshop. Two circular saws stood in obvious evidence. By this time I was expecting the saws themselves to be a part of the next performance. A petite black-haired girl wearing a long dark dress emerged from a doorway and with an unaffected smile softly explained to us that the show would be ready in a couple of minutes. We relaxed our stances. Some individuals took this opportunity to use the sanitation facilities. Gerri eventually introduced me to her daughter Clea, a serious red haired girl with an amicable sense of humor and a definite sense of artistic mission. She agreed immediately to allow me to interview her. I asked her what sort of piece she had done. She asked if I wanted to see it. Sure, I replied. She told me to come with her after the shows were finished to the performance space that she had used and she would give me an idea of what her presentation had been. The diminutive black-haired young woman returned and told us that Julia Kovacs was now all set to perform. She ushered us into a long hall that had been smothered in black felt. She sat most of us down on a few wooden benches. I chose to stand to get a better view. The raven-haired girl sat on a stool behind me and dimmed the lights to black.
22 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it was seen as being an obscure subject, especially since I wanted to narrate parts of the trip that had little to do with puppetry as well. This was the journey that cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. My short one day visit to Charleville-Mézières was the first crux of the journey. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will take six posts. Enjoy!
“One of Those Days”
March 23, 2005
I spun around instantly. All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t have my coat anymore. And that was terrifying news. My coat’s secretive zipped compartments, in lieu of a money belt, contained my money, credit cards, passport and rail pass. If I didn’t find that coat soon the trip would be well over. With adrenaline coursing through me I picked up my weighty black backpack with my one good arm, thrust my broken braced wrist through the strap and picked up the rubber handle of the other pack while my eyes darted to and fro. The sweat was instantaneous.
It wasn’t exactly an auspicious commencement to a day that didn’t have much promise attached to it as I scanned the Gare de l’Est: perhaps le plus louche train station in Paris. Although I would have to admit that the sleaze factor was far below that of, say Frankfurt, Germany. And neither of these locales would even register a blip on the old American sleaze-o-meter. In America I could be fairly certain that my coat would be in another state by now. Memories of one night waiting at the Baltimore bus terminal, heck any Greyhound bus station in the U.S. of A., are far more indelibly tainted with apprehension than any time spent in any train station in old Europa. Nevertheless, that being said, I wouldn’t want to take a stroll around this vicinity at two in the morning on a Wednesday looking for the nearby Gare Du Nord. Fortunately for me it was only about 09:45 and most of the station’s shiftiest denizens were probably just getting tucked into bed with a comforting bottle of vin table. Well most of them but not all, I did glimpse a few suspect insomniacs in one of the darker recesses of the building. I frantically and physically retraced my immediate past quickly hitting the points like a silver ball in a pinball machine. Bingo! There was my coat. I had taken it off at a stand-up table where I had consumed some narcotic pastry. Evidently the French edible had fully put me into a trance state so deep that I would be willing to sacrifice my whole journey for a seductive combination of flour, butter, salt and sugar. This could never happen in the Czech Republic. But now I had lost my comfortable seat and was forced to stand for the next half-hour as I waited to find out which voie the train to Charleville-Mézières would depart from. Inauspicious indeed.
“You ever have one of those days?” Yeah I know it’s a cliché of the highest order. But we all say things like that: “It’s just one of those days.” And that’s how I was beginning to feel about this one. I had arisen at 7:00 AM and had left the Hotel St. Andres des Arts around eight. The sun was shining a little too brightly for this March morning and I was already beginning to regret wearing my wintry dead-moss-green coat. As I rode the Metro from Odeon to Gare de l’Est I tried to remember everything I could about my day’s destination. I was attempting to find the Institut International de la Marionnette (Marrionnette is the French word for puppet.) in the twin towns of Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes region of France. The guidebook information was spare. I had no map of the town. (This was 2005 and I had no cellphone yet.) I did not know where the Hotel Les Cleves was located in relation to the train station. Therefore I had no idea what kind of brutal walk I might have to endure with my hefty packs. Nor did I have any idea where the institute might be vis-à-vis the hotel or even the town for that matter. My attempts to contact the institute via email had produced one reply, which had told me to write to the email address of a woman who never replied back. On the town’s French language website I had discovered that there were going to be student mid-term performances, although I would be arriving only in time for the last of three days worth. I knew precious little about the school. I was just hoping that this might be interesting in some degree and accessible. In other words, I was going into this situation nearly blind. Thus I didn’t hope for much. But I took my chances rather philosophically. At worst I figured I’d be in another French town, with yet another medieval center and a fair possibility of obtaining some species of decent cuisine. Still it wasn’t the best recipe for a sojourn. And nearly losing my coat didn’t put me into a buoyant mood.
My qualms seemed to be confirmed a little later on when I read that our train would not even be completing the route to Charleville-Mézières. There was an ominous little note on the board saying something about a bus continuation from Rethel onward. I was not too surprised therefore when we were asked to get out of the train and to transfer ourselves to two waiting buses. A poor Japanese fellow, who spoke neither French nor English, wandered back and forth between the two buses like a comedian from a silent film. I tried to point him in the right direction, either bus, and he eventually chose the opposite bus from me: a sage move no doubt. As we moved through the undulating French countryside we passed the railroad workers out on the trackers who had blocked our passage. Within a half-hour we arrived at the Charleville-Mézières Gare.
At the station I vainly searched for a local map. As I stepped outside I noticed an enlarged fiche with a good-sized map of the town. I studied it. It turned out that of the two towns of Charleville-Mézières I was in Charleville; I never did get to Mézières. There was Hotel Les Cleves about three blocks off, though I did not see any listing for the institute. I started off across a narrow green park in the general direction of the hotel, until I saw the streets, those baffling European streets. I skulked back to the little billboard with the map on it. I studied it much more thoroughly. This map problem would dog me through much of my trip. And it’s not that I have trouble reading a map. I don’t. I collect maps. I’m an excellent map-reader, well at least an excellent American map-reader. But American towns generally don’t have four or five streets all crashing into one intersection at cockeyed angles. American maps generally don’t list alleys the size of two car driveways as destinations. Maybe it’s just a lack of subtlety on our part; I wouldn’t want to speculate. But finally I felt I had interrogated the map’s graphic particulars long enough to stake my claim to a course of action. I hefted my debris two blocks up the main drag. The street names being europeanly obscure, of course, I then ventured upon one rue that seemed to be the appropriate place to make a left-hand turn. Eureka! Not only did I see the hotel but also just above my head was a friendly white sign shaped like an arrow pointing my direction and stating quite clearly, “Institut International de la Marionnette”. Voilà, two birds with one stone. Maybe it wasn’t “one of those days” after all.
As I waited for the maids to finish with my room I realized that it was nearly 3 o’clock and that I should get myself out into the town to locate the institute. This would be the only day I would have to observe any of the student presentations. I left the hotel casually without bringing my camera or my little digital audio recorder. I assumed that whatever would be happening wouldn’t occur until the evening. I stepped out onto the street again and soon saw another reassuring sign pointing the way for me. Yet as I tried to follow it I wandered around for several blocks seeing nothing that resembled an institute for puppets. At last I admitted defeat and retraced my steps back to that sign. Aha! European arrows point at things slightly differently than American ones. Once I adjusted my route accordingly I marched up the street two blocks and then saw another sign pointing right. I turned. No doubt I’d found it. Before me stood a large golden figure of a marionnettiste buried in the side of a wall.
(Next section: A Procession of Puppeteers)
16 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
Back in January of 2018 I was visiting Tbilisi Georgia for the second time. I had stopped into visit my friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. A few actors were there waiting for the rest to arrive when a young man named Irakli Toklikishvili walked in with some images on a sheet of paper. Suddenly Mariam Kapanadze and Elene Murjikneli lit up happily and went over to see what he had brought them. When I asked Elene what it was she said it was for Mariam’s animation project. I looked at the paper, a decayed landscape with a cabin on it. I thought it interesting. I looked for the drawings of the little characters who would be inhabiting the landscape. None ever materialized. Mariam said that the short animation film was about the landscape itself. I thought that was a beautiful idea and then didn’t think too much more about it.
While I was back in Alaska someone told me about an animation festival calling for submissions. I thought of Mariam’s film. I wrote to her. But she said it would be a long time before it was finished, maybe December 2019. I thought that there must be more to the story if it is taking so long. And so when I arrived back in Tbilisi back in December 2018 I asked Mariam what the story behind the short film really was. And then she explained it to me. And even in her imperfect English I suddenly caught my breath. I had never heard of such a simple yet complex idea.
In April I finally caught up with Mariam and Elene and asked them more about the project. The title of the project is მიტოვებული სოფელი (mitovebuli sopeli), in English The Abandoned Village. And essentially all it shows is the slow transition of a desolate village during the course of the day from night to morning to day to evening to night again. During the course of that day there are a few changes fog, wind, unseen clouds creating diffuse light, shadows changing during the course of a day. And with one exception that is pretty much it. There are no visible people, not even animals. Just the empty village during the course of a day in during the late autumn.
Now if that sounds like nothing happens you really don’t understand what Mariam is attempting here. In a way what Mariam is creating is something that has rarely been done. A living painting. Which is why for me to tell you what it is about is not to ‘spoil the plot’. What will matter in the end is simply you, stopping the insane business of your life for 13 minutes, watching the subtle transitions of a day in an abandoned village to ponder them. For Mariam has something up her sleeve much more complex than a mere picture.
She told me that “It’s a very important idea, it’s not only a village. The village is our world. Where we are living. What is an abandoned village? It’s when we have lost love, when we’ve lost important people. Life, this life, is very important. Because one day our spirit is abandoned. (Which is why the cemetery is an important image within the film.) The village is our world.”
Click on the Images to Expand
Is this village based on a real village that Mariam knows? Yes and no. As a young girl Mariam’s parents would take her to the family’s ancestral village in Imereti called Zodi. This is the village where her grandparents had lived in when she was a child. She remembers Zodi being full of life and people. But since then, while it is not quite the abandoned village of her story, some parts of it are not too different. This is actually a problem throughout Georgia as small villages wither as the youth leave to go to the cities. Of course similar problems have occurred throughout the world at one point or another as transportation and technology change the way we seen the world. But Mariam is very quick to point out that her film is not really a story about this particular village. For her the village in her short animation film is about the loss of love and joy. The abandonment of love, that the life of these old villages represented, the families, the songs, the communal feasts.
There are 21 paintings by Irakli Toklikishvili containing each cell of the animation for this piece. And then there are hundreds of small subtle effects that change slowly during the course of the film. Mariam says that her favorite filmmaker is the Greek Theo Angelopoulos. And another influence is Andrei Tarkovsky. And the slowness of the changes within the frame are certainly reflect their influences. Elene Murjikneli, her colleague at Budrugana Gagra, has been working with animation for twenty years, is both her assistant and at many points her instructor as they create this unique project. Other animators include Natia Pochkidze, Giorgi Chanturia, Nina Gvasalai. It is being produced by Tsotne Kalandadze for the “Kvali XXI” film studio. And when I asked where she got the idea for static frame without cuts she credits Gela Kandelaki, the Director of Budrugana Gagra, with the suggestion when she presented the idea to him.
Mariam Kapanadze originally conceived of the idea in response to a call for submissions by the Georgian National Film Center, when it called for its yearly submissions in 2017. She won the competition. They wanted a budget and a time frame. This was Mariam’s first attempt a complete film, and so she gave herself around two and a half years to complete it. She was awarded money, which by American standards would hardly pay for the electricity for the computers and lights. But Georgians have become quite adept at stretching budgets beyond what many further to the west would consider possible. In March of 2018 the project received a bit more funding. The money was important to keeping The Abandoned Village on track to a December 2019 completion date.
And yet this certainly isn’t a project with money as its central goal. Mariam told me that that even though the film has Georgian themes she considers it to be universal. The film while essentially being a silent film, has one character, an old man who can be heard mumbling inarticulately. He turns a light on in a rustic shack in the dark. And in Mariam’s eyes the entire film is a struggle between the life of light and the death of darkness. And this darkness is not an abstract thing for Mariam who is old enough to remember the times when the electricity failed regularly in Tbilisi. For Mariam the light brings the music of birds and the dark brings a muted muffled silence. And it remains for us to keep the light on in the dark. Mariam hopes people are reminded by this film to remember the goodness in life, the times of joy, and especially the love. If that sounds like a lot for a 13 minute animated painting then you should hear Mariam talk about it.
Better yet look for it sometime next year: მიტოვებული სოფელი The Abandoned Village.
June 25th 2019
Photos of Byrne & Mariam, Mariam in Zodi and all Production plates and art © Mariam Kapanadze
All other photos © 2019 Byrne Power
What’s happened to the documentary Gravity From Above? What happened to Byrne? We haven’t heard much about puppets or Georgia since the beginning of the year.
I’m wondering the same questions. The truth is that I guess I’m recovering from the double shock of losing whatever funding I had hoped to get for the documentary and then finding the work that I was supposed to do in Georgia not only endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy but also paying me far less than a living wage for the work that I am doing causing me to lose money every month.
Or to put it another way reality has set in.
Now to put a little more meat on the bone let me explain a bit. First of all I am quite hesitant to say much at all publicly. At this moment the details would be less than helpful. (Privately I can explain anything if interested.) And the situation has never been dire. But essentially I am only receiving about a third of what I need to live every month. Which is a drain on my personal economy, which can’t go on forever. Then there are expenses that I have to make to actually live here as opposed to being a transient. Things you need to buy simply to be a resident from frying pans to curtains. More catastrophically my computer has died twice on me. I now live in a strange twilight world of used MacBooks and external hard drives. (I’m waiting for a new hard drive to arrive through a tortuous path of mailing services.) And I have spent a fair sum just to keep myself running. And then there is the much larger question of how I will get my belongings shipped here. (Which had seemed quite possible when I left, but now more doubtful.)
The practical minded person would say something like this to themselves: “Well you’d better get back to Alaska where you can make money and forget about all of this. Admit you’ve been beat. It was an interesting dream, but it’s time to face the truth. Better get back while you still have the money to get there.” (I can hear the worried voice of my late mother here.)
Yet I know I haven’t made a mistake. Every time I have made a radical change in my life, from California to New York City, or from New York to Alaska, I have gone through exactly these moments of wall-smashing reality. In New York it took me multiple beds and floors for 4 long months to find an apartment. And that was beyond my means. I ended up leaving it after a year. Not to mention having one of the worst fevers I’ve ever had in my life during that first Christmas time. Narrowly escaping being beaten to a pulp by a street gang. And essentially finding that most of the folks I met during that period receded as friends. And then again in Alaska. I arrived without the job that supposedly was waiting for me, a container load of my library and other junk which then immediately sucked up all of my money on overweight freight charges, and I was renting a house for more than I could afford, especially without a job or money. The radio station work did eventually kick in. So did comments from certain members of the community about the music I was introducing to the airwaves. And I discovered the rather petty and vicious nature of otherwise friendly Alaskans during public board meetings, which I had to take part in as a part of my radio duties. Within six months I had to move everything again because the house I was renting was being sold out from under me. In both New York City and Alaska I knew I should be there. And eventually they became two of the most important places in my life.
So my thoughts now? What’s new? I expected the brick wall of reality. I look at these confrontations as the real test of my faith. If it’s worth it then it won’t be easy.
So I am very slowly learning kartuli, a language that has been very difficult to read and to pronounce. And I do not mean difficult to pronounce the way French and German are difficult to read or pronounce. We are talking a different order of experience here. And the besides the language there are the many cultural misunderstandings between the Georgian mentality and the Western European or American. The sense of time here is something I am still struggling to understand. It isn’t that it is loose as in many cultures, it’s erratic, inconsistent. Now slow, now fast. It has the irregular rhythms of its language.
But overall I haven’t felt let down, as much as puzzled. And hopeful. And cautious. Sometimes at home. Other times like an alien. Yet never in danger. I don’t feel that I’ll fall through the floor. It feels like there is a net somewhere below me. So apart from the drain on my economy and the moments of bewilderment, how are things really going?
Well I do feel at increasingly at home more than foreign. And I think what it comes down to is this… the conversations. Whenever I am feeling a little too distant from my own culture I end up having conversations that allow me to breathe in a way I normally can’t back in the USA. I find an openness to art and culture that is far more serious than I have found back in the states in a very long time. And that is why I am here.
Or I meet someone doing something creative that just takes my breath away. For instance seeing the animation that Mariam Kapanadze is working on for two years. Just to produce ten minutes of footage that hardly moves at all. Then she explains what she is trying to achieve and I am left speechless by the depth of it. (I’ve already interviewed her and will be sharing it very soon.) Or meeting Giorgi Apkhazava and the other members of the Tbilisi Chamber Theatre and realizing that they have the best perspective possible on why they are puppeteers. (Also coming soon!) Or the again being surprised at an intimate piano recital by the depth of music played by Eter Tskipurishvili. Words would fail me entirely here. And it is in moments like these and dozens more that I find myself more than feeling at home; it is something far more spiritual.
And it’s not that life here is in anyway convenient… for anyone. There is a sense of total chaos at times. I have been without electricity or water many times. I have lost the food in my freezer and then gotten sick on the food that wasn’t cold enough. I have found myself hunting endlessly for something as simple as thread or tape. The summer heat is not something I am looking forward to. Yet as I walk beneath endless grapevines on tree shaded lanes passing children who still play in the streets I find something human and humble here. And when I look around I see an intriguing future, both for the Georgians, and for myself.
And so that is where I am right now. I don’t need assurances that everything will work out. I just need to keep walking and see where this road goes and why I am here.
Well I’ve got three or four essays due to be written very soon. So no (!) I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m just looking around, catching my breath, taking stock, and uttering quiet words of gratitude.
And I haven’t forgotten about Gravity From Above, the documentary!
Thanks for your patience my friends.
June 3rd 2019
And thanks April Harding!
And so I stepped onto the České dráhy train bound first for Berlin then to Köln (Cologne) then to Paris. I would arrive back around 8 in the evening. At least that was the plan. We arrived at Děčín, the last Czech station before Germany, where we were informed that everyone had to exit the train. Deutsche Bahn, the German railways, had decided to go on strike. But only for two hours. Strange. How nice of them to ask for more money to show they weren’t being appreciated enough. I mean I personally appreciated the gesture. As I’m sure the rest of Germany did too as all trains were sent into a tizzy of lines and confusion. I tried to figure out which way to go next. Two hours changed everything. Yes eventually the next train from Prague to Berlin came by two hours later. But now none of my connection would work at all. And when I did arrive in Berlin I was delayed again. Another hour. So whither Byrne? A train to Dusseldorf then another to Karlsruhe through Strasbourg, France, a TGV into Paris. which allowed me to walk through the Carons door about 11:45 that night after a metro and bus ride through the dark streets. But at least I had made it back. I came very close to missing that last Strasbourg train, which would have delayed me until the next day.
The next day it was time to visit Paris. Something had happened while I was gone. Paris was in the middle of the most serious popular revolt since May of 1968. People wearing yellow safety vests, les gilets jaunes, were protesting Emmanuel Macron’s fuel taxation policies. But it wasn’t just that. This cauldron had been boiling for some time. I had actually seen Macron back in Charleville-Mézières about a week and a half before I left. Well I didn’t see his face, but from above him in the International Institute of Puppetry I did see his hands on the other side of the limousine waving at folks on the street. But I also remembered something from that day as well. There were gilets jaunes in Charleville too. They were just beginning their protest. But the gendarmes had shoved them off out of the way before Macron entered his car. Now Paris was erupting, particularly on the weekends, with anger from all across the political spectrum from far right to far left, with many apolitical workers in between. I was curious as to what I would find when I returned to Paris.
And so the next day I wandered out to find out what Paris looked like. I had spoken with the Carons’ house guest Ugo Jude who had given me the idea that gilets jaunes had moved to the fringes of the city during the weekdays. So I didn’t expect much in the way of activity. Nevertheless I decided to venture out. I arrived near the Opera and decided to walk towards the Champs-Elysées. I began to noticed a few windows with cracked glass every now and then. Then I would see a large piece of plywood in another window. I passed Galeries Lafayette, the most extensive and chic department store in Paris. Next door was Printemps, another huge classic French department store. And at first I was struck by their elaborate Christmas windows because they featured puppet automata. But then I looked again and noticed that instead of glass their windows were huge sheets of plexiglass, with glue in the middle holding them together. And I could guess why. A pizza restaurant had broken glass. Clothing stores had been attacked. Every bank from there to the Champs-Elysées was boarded up completely. The police and military presence was everywhere and toting serious ordnance. They were ready for whatever came next.
Eventually I arrived at the Champs-Elysées. I slowly made my way up the grand boulevard. More boarded windows. Stores with freshly glazed glass. And people were out shopping for Noël. In fact if you didn’t know better you would swear it was a normal day. Only the gendarmes with their guns, the broken windows and the darkened skies made it feel different. I didn’t go all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe. I felt I knew what it would look like. The weekends had already become ritualized protests. But most people were talking under there breath about a Sixth Republic. Would this movement overturn Macron’s globalist technocratic agenda? Winter was coming and it was hard to say. People don’t like to protest during the holiday season. But no matter what, this was yet another sign of Europe’s fraying political situation.
The next day I had an appointment to meet Aurelia Ivan again this time for our official interview for Gravity From Above. My friend and translator Julien Caron was unable to come because he had acquired the local Europe illness which had been circulating in Germany and the Czech republic as well. I had felt a sting in the back of my throat, but my immunities must have been strengthened by the four various colds and fevers I had picked up on my last trip. Aurelia wanted to meet at the cafe of the La Halle Saint-Pierre, a museum dedicated to exhibitions of art brut (outsider art). The museum was located between the seedy Pigalle district and the gleaming white domes of Sacré-Cœur, and that seemed just right.
In spite of not having a translator we had a warm meeting and a very good interview. Aurelia, originally from Romania, had been living in Paris ever since she graduated from ESNAM in Charleville in 2005. I had kept an eye on some of her projects over the years. She has also been teaching courses of practical puppetry at the Sorbonne. Aurelia is obviously a woman with many ideas. We discussed the direction of her work as well as her thoughts about the nature of puppetry. At one point she had commissioned an android to be made for a show where she asked essentially what we are doing to ourselves. She certainly understands the tactility of puppetry, charmingly refusing to type out the name of her shows on my laptop, which I had brought with my translated questions. She did that not to reject technology, she certainly uses computers. But to maintain her contact with the physical world. And she definitely understands, as so many puppeteers do, that we are losing out connections to the material objects of this world. After I had finished asking her thoughts we talked a little longer. At one point she looked at me and then realized that I had already formulated answers to many of the questions that I had posed. She smiled broadly. I admitted that I didn’t simply want to say it myself. I wanted puppeteers to say what I knew they already felt for themselves.
Yeah I know what I think. We are heading into dangerous times. And not for the usual political reasons. It’s because we are living in the abstractions of technology and our screens. And if we don’t turn back to the real world… reality will come for us.
At last it was time to say farewell to Aurelia, to the Carons, to Paris, to Western Europe, and to travel by plane to Georgia. It would require the usual 9 hour wait at the Warsaw Airport so that I could arrive in Tbilisi at 5:30 in the morning. I spent that time writing. Reflecting. This journey to Europe had been a diet of many potent memories. But now all bets were off. I really had no idea what to expect next. What would happen when I arrived in Georgia… to stay?
December 30th 2018
If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above please do so. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing in 2019. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does. Thanks for all of your help over the years!
And so I was in Prague to meet puppeteers. I had an idea to get a last round of interviews for Gravity From Above before going to Tbilisi to start editing. I wanted to get caught up on Czech puppetry since my last serious round of interviews in 2012. (I was also here in 2016 but that was more to capture performances.) And changes had occurred since then. One of the more serious changes in the landscape of the Czech puppet was that Josef Krofta had died in 2015. Krofta more than any other director in Czech theatre had changed the presentation of puppetry. The actor now came out from behind the stage to perform with the figures. His passing signaled the end of an era.
Another change had occurred over at Loutkář (the Czech word for puppeteer), the first serious puppetry magazine in the world and still in existence after over 100 years. Nina Malíková, daughter of famed puppeteer, historian and theorist Jan Malik, had been editor-in-chief for many years, but she had stepped down to allow Kateřina Lešková Dolenská to take over the post. And while in 2016 I had only briefly met Kateřina, so briefly that I hardly remembered her. I decided that it was time to formally make her acquaintance and to conduct an interview.
Thus I spent a couple of sessions with Kateřina at the offices of Loutkář on Celetná Street in the heart of Old Prague. Again I find it curious, if you look down from the windows onto Celetná you see the aimless tourists, but inside I was connected to the real world of České loutkářství (Czech puppetry). In a simple office with shelves filled with copies of recent editions of Loutkář I met Kateřina. She was never a puppeteer herself, yet in university (DAMU) had developed an abiding interest in České loutkářství as a historical and intellectual subject. Kateřina is the kind of person you rarely find back in the USA. She obviously could have chosen any career path she wished. In America you might find a such a woman ensconced in the higher ranks of corporation or law firm. But here she was quite proudly a historian of loutkářství and now editor-in-chief of an old yet not particularly profitable puppetry magazine. That was perfect.
We discussed the situation of puppetry at present in Czech Republic. One thing that was clear, Josef Krofta’s generation in the 1970’s, the one that had made the most changes to puppetry during the peak of the communist suppression after the violence of the Soviet invasion of 1968, had nearly completely departed the stage. Švankmajer remained, but his puppets were in films and Kateřina explained that there was too broad a gap between the worlds of theatrical puppets and film animated puppets. A divide she hoped to help bridge. Now the idea of the multi-media show had taken over, mingled with the concept of object theatre. She still considered this to be puppetry, yet I detected a wistfulness for the more direct tactility of the traditional puppet. And indeed she felt that the puppet would eventually emerge again.
Kateřina pointed out a few puppet folks she felt I should meet, one of them was Michaela Homolová. Michaela was a director of puppet shows for children. But she treated these as art, not as simplistic entertainment. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to see one of her shows. I met her at the Celetná Divadlo (divadlo = theatre) along with her friend fellow puppet director Jana Vyšohlídová, who also directed pro děti (for children). Now I may have had more prestigious and informative interviews with Jan Švankmajer, Nina Malíková, Josef Krofta, Henryk Jurkowski and on and on. But I’ve rarely had as enjoyable an interview. One thing that most Czechs seem to have in common is a sense of humor in a way that other cultures simply don’t. It is a dark sense of humor. But this humor is also passed through everyone. And every Czech I’ve met will give evidence of this humor in a way that other cultures simply won’t. And so while being a serious interview it was also one of the funniest I’ve ever done, with Michaela and Jana riffing off or each other like jazz musicians. For instance I asked them why do puppets in a world of instant entertainment on every screen. And they burst into laughter explaining that they like the puppet theatre and “we kind of don’t care about the audience.” Which was actually remarkably similar to what Jan Švankmajer told me back in 2012. (I’ve left a sample of their interview over at YouTube. Look below to watch it!)
I also dropped in on Buchty a Loutky over at the Švandovo Divadlo for one show pro děti called Vánoční raketa, which translates into Christmas Rocket. And is about these alien creatures called Špidlíci who bake a strange cake to take to Bethlehem by rocket. And somehow that strange cake reminds me of what Buchty a Loutky has always been. An odd but lovingly made thing given to us. It was good to see Marek, Vit and Zuzana again. Radek was out of town and I was hoping to interview him about his puppet film Malý Pán.
On the last day I hopped on the number 22 tram and jumped off at the Vršovické Náměstí to meet Mirek Trejtnar of Puppets In Prague. (Link below) Puppets in Prague is a studio that both makes puppets and conducts multi-week training workshops in making puppets for film animation, toy puppet theatre, wooden marionette carving and in performance. It was a quiet morning when Mirek Trejtnar invited me in. Indeed I was in Geppetto’s workshop. Wooden puppets parts abounded. Half finished puppets made by students. Trick puppets. And the pièce de résistance, a nearly finished wooden automaton made for a woodcarver’s conference. Mirek in his conversation again underscored the importance of the tactility of the puppet. The need to see the thing itself. (You can sign up for his classes if you wish.)
That evening I got together with Nina Chromečková at a cafe to discuss translations for the film. Which I felt I would get enough support for to get accomplished soon. We had an excellent conversation but soon it was time to get back to my little apartment over by the Národní Divadlo (National Theatre).
Hear and see more from this visit!!
All in all it was a long full week in Prague, making me miss it more than usual. The tourism, as it often has, sticks in the throat, but as a man peering into the world of puppets I am soon blissfully consumed by the real Prague, away from that one main artery of tourism, and onto the puppet stages where I find something irreplaceable and completely Czech. I look forward to visiting again. Nina Malíková invited me to come in June for the 90th anniversary of UNIMA. I’m not that far away now. Let’s see what happens by then.
And so back to Paris, which is burning!
Come back next time
Oh and if I don’t write before then Merry Christmas or should I say Merry Western Christmas. Christmas in Georgian is on January 7th.
And if you are interested in puppet workshops in Prague with Mirek visit their Puppets In Prague site.
And to find out more about Loutkář in English:
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.
I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.
One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.
You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!
Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)
But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.
But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.
My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.
The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.
Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.
Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!
Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)
Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.
I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.
But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.
On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
Watching the first year students at the Institut International de la Marionnette practice their repetitions is a fascinating experience. I can’t imagine many (if any) puppet teachers in the USA going through the kind of discipline and rigor that les élèves do. In a way it almost becomes a form of dance. Body movement is held in the highest regard. Brice Coupey, a renown artistic hand puppeteer works with the Guignol style puppet. In my interview later it was obvious that he saw Guignol as an astounding creation, though he himself never went to Guignol shows as a child. His parents put much more emphasis on sports. Which is a curious thing to think about as we watched the exercises. And they were exercises. One of the repetitions consisted of holding the puppet up high and then slowly turning it. Brice would do this until the students were visibly worn out from holding there arms up over their heads. And just when they began to groan he would the return his hand around using a different set of muscles. Then they would truly begin to moan. But holding the puppet over the head like this serves a real purpose. In a real show you have to do exactly that for sometimes an hour. Not always up but often enough to feel it. And what he was doing was getting them ready for the difficulties of performance. There is no groaning during a show.
Another exercise had each student hold the marionnette a gain (glove puppet) aloft while five or six of them walked in and out of each other in a more cramped space behind the castelet (the puppet stage). They would do this for five to ten minutes arms up… and not bumping into each other. Quiet a feat.
Emma Fisher, the Irish puppeteer and I got to watch as they also played various theatre games. Some games were played at the beginning to limber up. The rules of some of these games were frankly a bit of a mystery to me. Some I understood as I continued to observe them, a game where half the puppeteers would stand behind the castelet and choose a leader, while the other half would watch their movements and try to guess which one was the leader.
A stranger game consisted of everyone, about 15 students, standing in a circle and passing around a series of rapid comical bowing to words like ‘hi’ and ‘heeya’ and then suddenly someone would say something random like ‘samba’ and everyone would start shimmying around while vocalizing a funny tune together. That almost made sense. But then a girl said ‘James Bond’ and the girls on either side of him would act like fawning devotees. It was funny, but certainly left me scratching my head.
When it came time for les élèves to take turns doing little solo performances then the transformations occurred. Why were these students wanting to become marionnettistes (the French word for any kind of puppeteer not just those with strings)? There were girls who were obviously a bit comical and theatrical, for instance Czech Tereza or Manon. (And the ratio of girls to boys was quite high.) But then there were quieter ones like Camille, Coralie, or Alika, who emerged from their shells to be completely and wonderfully odd, even a little edgy. Or Marina, the normally serious Russian, who not only proved to have a slyly comic style, but also revealed a fantastic singing voice, almost by accident. And I realized that this little school to train marionnettistes must have had some peculiarly intriguing characters over the years.
Meanwhile Emma and I were given a chance to make presentations to the first year students. Emma showed a short documentary that had been made about her doctoral project, Pupa. It revealed to me just how complex her thinking on the subject of puppetry and disability is. And no, she’s not seeing puppetry merely as a therapeutic device. Puppetry for her is a way to tell stories that we might otherwise not hear. And especially told in a manner that is directly related to the disability in question. And she had a bit of an epiphany at one point that broken or incomplete puppets could be an excellent way of convey ideas that perfectly made puppets never could.
I, on the other hand, showed the students a short art film that I had been working on for years. They immediately let me know everything that was wrong at first. (Fortunately these European students don’t have that doctrinaire attitude of compliments before criticism. Which I’ve often seen as false.) But interestingly enough they then spent quite a while pleasantly trying to figure out what it was about. I took note of their best suggestions and decided go back and re-edit the film a bit. Since they were in many ways an ideal audience their ideas carried weight with me. Even though I knew I needed to retool the film I was heartened that they found many points to discuss, which is all I really ask out of anything I do.
One person I had remembered good discussions with last year was Coraline Charnet. I hadn’t come across her yet. But soon that would be rectified. On a quiet Monday afternoon we hunted down a café in the rain. It was easy to renew our acquaintance and talk about issues of texture and life at ESNAM again. Coraline is thoughtful and committed to trying to understand how to live. Sometimes too much so. I appreciated her honesty and integrity. With regard to certain obstructions I reminded her of the wisdom of picking one’s battles wisely. An excellent conversation overall.
I had another reason for being here. I had hopes of finding support for my documentary Gravity From Above. (You know the thing that this whole site is dedicated to.) I had a pleasant lunch with Raphaèle and the new director Philippe Sidre. And without going into any details I’ll say this. Yes there is some support there, not quite what I was hoping for, but enough. But I am quite grateful for what is there. But it turns out a have a longer way to go and more funds to seek. When I go to Prague I will be investigating more avenues. And in Tbilisi as well. But the good thing is that, as a result of good prompting from Raphaèle I now had a very detailed budget of my expenses over the years and a detailed catalogue of my many hours, over 30 (!) of interviews. (Getting them transcribed will be another expense.) There are other things I realized about what this project will need. But I will save that for another essay down the road. Meanwhile I feel good about things, even if this does raise new questions. But I am quite satisfied that Philippe, Raphaèle and the Institute are behind me in various important ways.
Finally my time here at Charleville was winding down. Emma left before my last week and was not replaced by a new chercheur, though an American was supposed to come. They were setting up the Noël Marché in the Place Ducale, but it wasn’t quite ready when I left. The scent of freshly cut Christmas trees did waft through my olfactory glands. It was at last time to make my rounds to say farewell to Aurelie, Delphine, Raphaèle and Brigitte. To say farewell to Emily, and the other students staying at the Villa: Sayeh, Valentin, Manon, Adria, Camille, Rose, Raquel and Tereza, who gave me an impromptu performance with her puppets made from the remnants of real fox and ferret stoles, while explaining how she cut the furs and sewed them back together and told me adamantly to ask the other Czechs I would meet in Prague why she was the first Czech student, and why weren’t Czechs coming to perform at the International Puppet Festival next year.
In the morning I arose early, vacated my apartment, said farewell to Charleville-Mézières once again while musing what an important place this has been in my life. Now all I had to do was to find the SNCF TER train to the TGV in Champagne-Ardennes and get myself up to Northern Germany. But I knew I wasn’t done with the Institut International de la Marionnette yet. I would be back again.
Strasbourg, France (waiting for the TGV to Frankfurt)
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. Film rights are an issue. But really there are dozens of other needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
Part One of this visit to Charleville here.
Earlier visits to the International Institute of Puppetry below.
While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
It occurred to me as I was arriving by train at the Aigle Gare looking for the bus up to Huémoz Switzerland that it was pretty much exactly 40 years since I first arrived at this same spot to find this remarkable Christian institution called L’Abri (the Shelter). During the current two weeks I would be here I would certainly be crossing the threshold of that anniversary. Yet I couldn’t check it exactly since my journals were buried in a storage unit back in Alaska. And just as certainly the Rhone Valley did not look the same on this day as it did back in 1978 when I first set eyes on Suisse, being so mesmerized by the effect of the bus ride ascending endlessly, it seemed, up to arrive at what was then an unknown future. The weather now was unusually hazy on this warm mid-October day obscuring both the valley and the great line of mountains usually dominating it. Curiously enough that first journey was also the last time I bought a one way ticket to Europe and did not have any clue about what I would find when I got there. Ever since I have always had well planned trips with distinct return dates to return to my American life. But that time, like this, I was stepping into the unknown. And that journey was ultimately responsible for this one in dozens of ways.
Since I had last visited about a year ago in 2017 I didn’t have any specific set of emotions to bring to my own table this time. Last year I was coming off of an emotional time, having just moved all of my belongings into Storage Unit 3. Last year I had pains in my heels from recurring bursitis that dogged me through most of my Western European trek last year. Last year felt like an act of assertion that I had much more to do in life. But this time we would see.
I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon. No one official seemed to be around. But I had a fairly good idea that I would be staying in Chalet Les Mélèzes again. A student, a dancer as it turned out, named Heather showed me the way. Eventually Steve Bullock found me and everything was confirmed. I was sleeping in exactly the same bed as last time. And Sunday dinner was at 7pm down at Chesalet. Per-Ole and Amelia were preparing the meal and I was introduced to more students. I was particularly glad to run into L’Abri’s tech worker, the Dutchman Folkert, who liked to give long rambling retellings of famous books. (Later in the week he would unspool half of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.) Word got around that I was the ‘puppet man’ and was introduced to Julie a puppeteer who had brought her own carved Czech style marionette named Peter, who was treated as a celebrity by Per-Ole and Amelia’s young children. P-O read Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s Nightingale after the meal. It was as if I never left.
I was due to give two lectures while I was there. As I told students the subject of the first, Texture, I tended to get inquisitively puzzled looks. What would I say about that? What would anyone say about texture? And in fact that was exactly the reason for my choice. Last year while visiting the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières I gave a presentation on Gravity From Above and the work achieved so far. I contended that puppetry was an antidote to much of the contemporary sterility in the design and ambience of the age. And I particularly contrasted the texture and tactility of the puppet with the flatness of the screen. That caught the attention of a few of the folks there. I had assumed that puppeteers were well aware of the contrast between the smooth modern surfaces and the rougher features of the puppet. But in reality not much thought had gone into it. As I searched the archives of the Institute I found very little on the subject. Maybe a book on fashion. Then as I extended my search I discovered very little indeed had been written on the subject at all. And as I pondered it I realized that the the transition from a deeply textured world to the flat junky plastic textures surrounding us at every step had largely been accompanied by no fanfare whatsoever. No one realized what they were getting rid of when they moved from, say, natural fibers to synthetic or from wood to vinyl siding. And so I had decided to dig a bit more deeply into the fallow ground. The lecture went well sparking several thoughtful comments that helped me look in new directions.
But my second and related lecture on the Need for Beauty was even more provocative. As I assumed it would be. Especially the hot and touchy subject of human beauty. It was my contention that we had created an increasingly ugly world with art, commerce and philosophical underpinnings all joining in. And the worst culprit of all being kitsch, all of that cute cuddling tacky shite that seems to infest our lives at every turn from household decorations to geekdom. I quoted Andrei Tarkovsky concerning beauty in art, Jordan Peterson on how true beauty is actually frightening. And then there was this quote from Roger Scruton’s book Beauty – A Very Short Introduction : “Simply put, kitsch is not, in the first instance, an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture.” Indeed I think the hottest part of the talk is when I mentioned that there must be a connection between appearances and the interiors. I think many people have been so conditioned to say that everyone is equal that to point out the physical beauty of a person was tantamount to saying that such obvious disparities could only be a form of bigotry. No one said as much, but the thought hung in the air. Per-Ole, an artist himself, made an astute observation that beauty just might be found in the truth behind those appearances. And later as P-O and I discussed it we both agreed that it was a thorny and needed subject for discussion.
I made the rounds meeting old friends Richard and Karen, Gian (A friend for 40 years!), Greg and Lisby, Steve Bullock whom I had met once before. Katrina and Aaron were new workers. Katrina I had met before, since she was Gian’s granddaughter, and was glad to spend more time getting to know her better. Her husband Aaron was a welcome addition to the mix as well. Marnie from New Zealand was also a new worker lending a bit of Kiwi pizazz to the affair.
I was impressed by the students. I was a little curious about how the polarizations of modern life would be reflected by them. And fortunately the answer was very little. They seemed largely open to discussion and only a couple of times did I hear any vaguely political or partisan language. And even then not with the kind of vehemence one finds in other settings. Though I suspect if one scratched the itch too much it might bleed. But most of the current crop of students I think had been affected less by the rhetoric of the times than by the desire to transcend it. I had good conversations with Paul, a Brit with Ghanian roots, Kate, a Dutch/American cellist, Melody from Germany, Tasha from Australia Dukjoo from Korea and especially Folkert. It was also excellent to come across another writer with similar interests in Lee Pryor, currently a ‘helper’ at L’Abri. And I had a heart to heart talk with Per-Ole before it was time to leave.
I did take my favorite cogwheel train ride from Bex to Gryon with Paul and Kate. Then ambled along in fine discursive form until we arrived in Villars where we sat outdoors at a patisserie sipping tea and eating opulent desserts. And I joined most of L’Abri on an outing up to Bretaye at 1,806 m (5925 ft) by another cogwheel train, where we all shared a simple picnic by a small glacial lake on the last nearly summery day of the season. Snows descended on the higher elevations of the Grand Muveran and the rest of the Alps the next day. Eventually it was American Halloween, which was celebrated in the casual guess-what-I-am style common in many US colleges. Jack-O’Lanterns were carved. We even had two young trick-or-treaters with bags coming through the students quarters. And I had a chance to show a few short European puppet films for the curious.
Eventually it was time to drift down to Aigle on the 9:07 bus and as I waited a few souls saw me off in fine L’Abri style. And as I rode the sharp winding road down to the Rhone Valley floor I pondered upon this visit. It was a memorial of sorts to my many treks back to this place over the years. And it was the first trip to Huémoz that I took knowing that my home was not ‘back there’ somewhere but ahead of me. The next stop was back in Charleville-Mézières in France where I had been granted a month long residency. But first I would have to sling shot my way through Paris briefly again.
More to come.
The Centenaire of the Armistice of 1918
And hey! While finances are not a problem. I’ve been looking more seriously at the cost of the few film rights I’ll need for the film. Let’s put it this way. Every financial gift will help. I still don’t know the status of my support from the International Institute of Puppetry. But I suspect I should have made the budget higher than I did. Also I have a medical bill that has managed to surprise me and follow me. Again PayPal is a great way to send me contributions. And thanks to the gift (you know who you are) that recently came through as I’ve been traveling. It really helps.
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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And so my journey commences, Alaska is behind me as I sit at the Juneau Airport having just suffered the serious indignities of the TSA, while watching an elderly woman so infirm she could barely move her wheelchair get patted down for five minutes as a threat to national security. It’s strange that Juneau, a place I seriously doubt anyone is going to ever use as an entrance for international skullduggery, usually has the worst security checks. Much worse than JFK, Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle. And since September 11th 2001 it’s always been that way. The only thing I can think of is that being so far removed from any aspect of terrorism, being so completely unable to imagine real terrorism, having only experienced these things through television and the internet they have succumbed to a dread paranoia of whoever ‘they’ might be. My dear departed mother whose body had been regularly infused with replacement parts was usually detained for the same treatment that the woman in the wheelchair had been. Which must explain the severe irritation I feel at the guards invading the propriety of the aged or handicapped who couldn’t possibly have ill motives nor the wherewithal even use the restrooms, let alone carry out an attack. And if you point this out to them, you will be suspect yourself, and pulled over to the side. Thus we submit. This is life in 2018.
Okay. Sorry. I just had to get that off of my chest. What am I doing here? Oh yeah I’m waiting to board a plane to get to Europe to continue my Gravity From Above journey and to end up in my new life in Georgia. So I suppose what I need to do is let you know my itinerary. And if anyone wants to meet me along the way contact me.
So yes… though I am moving to Tbilisi Georgia, I won’t get there until December 15th. So what will I be doing in the meantime?
Here is my itinerary.
October 6th through October 20th staying with friends in Paris and doing more puppetry and cultural research.
October 21st through November 2nd L’Abri in Huémoz Switzerland
November 2nd through November 4th Back in Paris
November 5th through November 30th Residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France
December 1st and 2nd Luneberg Germany visiting friends
December 3rd through December 9th Prague Czechia (I liked the Czech Republic as name much much better. There just aren’t enough places you get to say ‘the’ before the name.)
December 10th through December 14th Paris one last time
December 15th Tbilisi Georgia to live.
And so I leave Alaska with too many mixed emotions to share here. Alaska will always be a part of me. Yet I know it is time to leave. The finger points east to Europe, even further east to Georgia. I will try to finish up this everlasting Gravity From Above documentary project as soon as I can. Editing will take time. Distribution longer. Yet Alaska will stay with me. Just as New York stays with me. California stays with me. The faces, the events, the ineffable.
I’ll be reporting more about my adventures through this Gravity From Above site, and of course I’ll keep writing my ideas over at The Anadromous Life. But eventually I’ll have to start a new site (I can’t bring myself to call what I do blogs. It is such a slobby sounding word.) about my Georgian life… but it’s certainly not going to be called My Georgian Life. I need to come up with a name.
Stick around. It’s sure to get interesting.
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Well I’ve been quiet for a little while, catching up with my writing and catching my breath between journeys to Europa. Mostly preparing to leave Alaska permanently. Being back here has been tinged with a kind of nostalgia already. I am doing things that I know I will probably never do again: Picking spruce tips for tea, harvesting devil’s club, drying morels, puffballs and boletes to rediscover in over a year when my container is finally sent to Georgia; Taking people on tours to float down the Chilkat River or to see bears on the Chilkoot; Meeting friends to discuss my plans; Stopping others to let them know that my farewell event will be coming up on September 8th at the ANB/ANS Hall. Plus remembering the things I won’t miss here. Everyplace has its curses. In New York City it was crime, rats , roaches, ultra hipness. Here in Haines it’s small minded pettiness, bovine tourists and other forms of myopia. But there is much goodness and many friends that I will indeed miss.
Meanwhile on October 4th I leave for good. And there has been much to consider. Fortunately last summer’s insane moving crunch has left me in perfect position to move. Everything I own is in unit number 3 at S & W Storage. And I have gone through it all to remove things I won’t need in Tbilisi: lamps, waffle irons, heaters, microwave ovens, anything that simply plugs in and gets hot. Also I’ve put the finishing touches on my boxes and reorganized everything into the most efficient shape. And finally I’ve gone through the last of my mother’s things and mailed off the items connected more to my stepfather Mike’s family. And so my life here seems nearly completely closed down. Only a few final details left. They could be finished in a day. My storage unit is paid through October 2019.
Then there are the more complicated problems associated with my departure. New passport? It arrived last week after being rejected once for too much shadow in my photo I assume, but they didn’t specify. Airline tickets to Paris? Yes. But I still need to buy my December tickets from Paris to Tbilisi. I’m waiting for my funds to resolve a bit first. Train tickets for the Western European portion of my journey? Yes. Though I have to wait until I get to Europe to buy my specific reservations. A rental in Prague for a week? Yes. Though I am reminded how much hotel prices have risen since my first visit to Prague in 2000. Letters to friends in Paris, Switzerland and Germany? Yes and they are waiting for me. My apartment for the first three months in Tbilisi? Yes. Same place. (Thanks Mariam.) Continuity is a good thing.
But there is much I am struggling to get done. I have been working a lot to try to get the money I need to survive until my European money kicks in, which won’t be until early 2019. So after all of this summer’s traveling expenses, which also includes new clothing, a daypack, medical check up, car repairs so that I can sell it in good shape before I leave, and many other sundry things I am hoping my funds will hold to get me through the valley. (You can help out below through PayPal.) And I am trying to get my little book of puppet plays ready to sell before I leave. There are so many other things that I had hoped to finish before I leave. Because once I get to Georgia everything will change. (Mail is terrible there, which is a major problem.)
And so what am I doing once I leave?
On October 4th I leave on Alaska Marine Lines’ ferry for Juneau. I’ll spend a night at the Best Western Hotel then ricochet from Juneau to Seattle to Portland to Reyjavik to Paris. Then I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Paris with the Carons decompressing from all of my summer finalities. I’ll then spend two weeks at L’Abri in Switzerland where I hope to give two lectures: one on rediscovering beauty; one on the meaning of texture. Then I have been granted a four week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France.
At that point several things will happen: I will give a presentation on the state of this Gravity From Above documentary project. And then there is an important moment for both the life of the project and my own future. I don’t know how they will decide. (There have also been changes in the leadership since I was last there.) I will also interview more students for the project as well as do more research on the project especially for older imagery and cinematic images. All in all it looks to be a time to keep an eye on.
Then at the beginning of December I will travel up to northern Germany to visit good friends and then slingshot over to Prague for my final Gravity From Above interviews and images. Then I will return to Paris to wrap things up to go to Tbilisi, Georgia on December 14th.
When I arrive in Georgia I will immediately go to work getting ready to edit Gravity From Above on professional equipment. I will also check in with Nini Sanadiradze at the The Union of Tbilisi Museums at start to prepare for a tojina conference in late January. And thus my new life begins.
Watch this to be mesmerized by the dancers at Erisioni that I saw last March.
And so is this the finish line for Gravity From Above? Maybe. Or close to it. The end is in sight though. I still have to get my translations done. I still need to get music composed and recorded. I’ll probably need a few shots that I forgot about. I will need to get the films and their rights. But that’s what I’ll be working on from October to January. And how much of what gets done depends on what the International Institute of Puppetry provides.
Oh! And then there is trying to get the thing seen!!!
And so maybe there is more left than I thought. But we are certainly closing in on something!
And dear readers, friends and puppeteers I still need your support. The challenge isn’t over.
But thank you so much for helping me get this far.
August 26th 2018
And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
And so I took off from Tbilisi to stopover at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport for a quick transfer to another Lot plane to Paris. At least that was the plan. I knew I was in trouble when the flight was delayed a little to begin with. And I only had 50 minutes originally to get make my connecting flight. 50 minutes to get get through the European Union passport control and walk the endless building. Which had been whittled down to 15 minutes by the time we landed. But they let me get through customs rather quickly. But then I turned a corner to run smack dab into another airport inspection. And while no else was there yet, they held me up a precious five minutes, to go through my stuff thoroughly. And I guess because I was looking hurried and sweaty they decided I needed extra security procedures. So they tested my hands for ballistics and looked carefully at my laptop etc etc, all in the time honored tradition of Polish paranoia, a tradition I refused to accept as an inheritance from my mother.
Then, finally, at last, I was allowed through and now I raced blindly, stupidly, down what seemed like an endless terminal just to watch my plane back away from the gate. And so I was stuck at the airport for another 6 hours. I’ve got to figure out these crazy connections someday. This wasn’t the first time I had been flustered by this particular Lot connecting flight. Warsaw’s Chopin was quickly joining London’s Heathrow as one of my least favorite airports. Well I tried to make the best of it. Lot did give me a voucher which didn’t quite cover a whole meal. And I sat and wrote one of my many essays about this journey. Eventually I was aboard another flight. I sailed through French customs and the train, eventually exiting a bus back in L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the southern suburbs of Paris, back at the Caron’s house, where Gilles and Lori were waiting for my arrival along with Paulette’s brother Julien.
One of the things that I had arranged while back in Georgia was to visit along with puppeteer friend Paulette Caron, a performance of Les Petits Bouffons de Paris. Paulette had been working as a guignoliste in Lyon and the Lyonnaise and Parisian style differ quite a bit. I contacted my friend Pascal Pruvost to see if we could come with him to his show in the banlieue of Paris. We hadn’t been able to make it work in late 2017 but now schedules seemed to align. We woke up early and took the train and metro out to the 20th Arrondissement to meet him at his studio near Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Paulette and I stood quietly on the slowly awakening street. After a time Pascal arrived. We eventually roused his co-guignoliste Bernard from a bed not to far away. And then we were off through the unsightly parts of Paris that most tourists never get to. We arrived at Parc des Chanteraines, still in a wintry mood. I had been here before in 2012. This time I would record their show from a different perspective. Meanwhile Paulette talked with Pascal about his show and techniques. Pascal, all skin and nerves, would not be an American’s first choice of a puppeteer for children. And yet here in Paris it seemed perfect that he and Bernard, his rather surreal confrere, would be performing for les enfants. One wants quirky people in charge of the traditions of a culture.
Soon it was time for the children. Pascal apologized a little because the age of the kids was quite young, between four and five years old. But that was fine for me. And while an older group might have been wilder, this group took Pascal’s cues quite nicely and responded enthusiastically. When someone got beat up they laughed. (Oh no! That’s not nice! Yeah, but that’s kind of the point.) Cheers went up from the petite children, who thoroughly enjoyed the show, adding to the catalogue of attributes that make up Frenchness.
On the drive back Pascal, who worries a lot about the effect of the cascades of recent immigrants on France, drove us passed a squat in the divider of a highway where an encampment of the migrants lived in squalor in ramshackle tents. They had created a small realm of trash bags and debris and were living in it. It was hard to understand why they living in the middle of the highway overpasses. I didn’t really have an opinion. But clearly Pascal and Paulette both had many thoughts on the subject. And it was clear that there was something brewing here that would not simply go away. As an outsider to French (or any society) I’ve learned to not spew my own opinions about things I don’t really understand, especially when based on the shallow reporting of the American media.
The next day was Saturday, Passover and Western Easter weekend. And I was invited over to Paulette’s boyfriend Simon’s mother’s house not far from her parents house for a Pesach (Passover) Seder. I was quite fascinated to go since I had never attended one before. And this seemed like a good choice, since while they were Jewish they were not strict Orthodox Jews, and thus my faux pas would be over looked. We arrived at her cozy little house and settled in. When the rest of the gathering had arrived we slowly worked our way through about half of the meal while reading from a booklet in French, which contained the famous phrases and answers like “Why is this night different from all others?” I surprised myself by actually reading my portion in French without a hitch, a small milestone for me. We ate the unleavened bread (matzo) and drank wine and bitter herbs and other traditional foods. I was struck by how much the Christian communion had been adapted from the service. This along with my first Georgian supra, also not the full affair, but close enough, were two new traditions that I felt honored to be able to share in one year.
Eventually, after warm farewells at the Carons, punctuated with French cheese, it was time to leave Paris and to take my Icelandair flight back to Seattle and then the Alaska Airlines flight to Juneau. I began to suspect things weren’t going to go smoothly when I arrived to an overcrowded Charles De Gaulle terminal, where all Iceland flights were being delayed because of severe snow back in Reykjavik. And so my flight was delayed by over two hours in Paris which then had an immediate ripple effect. This created another hour delay once we arrived in Iceland, and this meant I would missed my connection from Seattle to Juneau, causing me to stay overnight on the airlines tab in Seattle. And that then meant I would miss my ferry to Haines, causing me a two day delay in Juneau, where fortunately friend and erstwhile clown (!) Roblin Gray Davis put me up until I could get the early boat to Haines. And finally I arrived back in Haines where dear friend Martha Mackowiak met me and drove me to my dead car, where Scott Hansen was performing yeoman’s duty to resuscitate it. At last I entered the very cold house of my Haines Belgian friend Alain d’Epremesnil, who was still out of town counting tortoises in the Mojave Desert, to kick the wood stove to life. I was back in Haines.
Within two weeks of my arrival the old Quonset Hut I had lived in for 21 years had been razed to the ground and turned into an empty lot. It seemed to me to be a final message that it would soon be time to move on. But not before working through the summer season here in Haines and bidding a proper adieu to the land that has nurtured and taught me too much to describe here.
But I’m not quite done writing about this truly life altering journey. Next time I’ll give a brief summary of what I have been through and what it means to me at this juncture in time. Come back then…
And so don’t forget you can still help with the project, and we will be moving everything to Tbilisi Georgia. Donate here through PayPal.
I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.
I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.
Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.
The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.
I then followed the performers into the back dressing rooms, which of course were far too small for so many people. But no one was complaining. Every dancer, singer and musician had traditional clothes. This was the first time I had actually seen them wearing them. The clothes were expensive and needed to be protected from excessive wear. So rehearsals were always done in their black dance garments. But now for the first time I was seeing the Georgian finery I had seen in videos and photos. Most of the men wore variations on the chokha, the distinctive coat with cartridge sleeves lined across the front. These now mostly carried ornamental cylinders. Male dancers however usually had several various regional costumes to change into during the course of the evening. The women’s dresses were even more elaborate, often featuring regal caps and flowing veils. They too changed during the evening to represent the regions of Georgia. All in all quite the sartorial spectacle.
Another interesting aspect was the makeup applied by the women to emphasize their eyes, heavy eyelashes and strong cosmetics. This of course was to communicate across the distance from stage to audience under hot lights. And when they did this they became almost unrecognizable transforming into ikons of Georgian culture, as did the men in their way, shaggy wool hats, swords, special boots for jumping on their toes, etc. Fascinating to observe. Before the performance we ate some lobiani, a flat bread filled with beans, a light snack for energy but certainly not a full meal. But soon it was time.
They went through a couple of songs then paused for presentations and awards. This continued through out the evening. Their were several professional photographers and videographers there. I left them to capture video of the show. They were much more aggressive than I. And besides I was interested in something else. I care more about the personalities and their process to become these incredible dancers and singers. And so I turned my camera mostly on the backstage between numbers, the quick changes the tired bodies and the characters of many people who were, even without language becoming friends. All the time I couldn’t help but feel honored to be with them as one of the crew, not merely as this guy from the outside, from another country.
When the entertainment was over I looked down the undulating hills to lights of Tbilisi glowing from a distance. We drove back in the dark, Somewhere in the back a few singers were singing a song together. And everything was good.
In two days on Monday I went into the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue to say farewell. I wasn’t sure if I would film or not. But I did. There were Turks there who wanted to see them for a tour. So I had a chance to watch the full performance one more time. This may have been the best show I had seen yet. And I was much more able to follow their movements with my camera. Although I am still kicking myself, because although I was able to follow the sword dance perfectly, and thought the footage would be my best. I then looked at the camera, I had forgotten to press record. I shook it off and captured the finale. (Which can be seen here.)
At the end, before everyone left, I asked Otari to allow me to say farewell to the troupe. He spoke and more than fifty pairs of eyes looked at me. And I realized how meaningful this experience had been and how in so many ways I had become close to these musicians, singers and dancers who put so much into their art. I tried to speak but choked up. And they loved that! They burst into applause. I tried to speak again and it proved quite difficult. And again they cheered and clapped loudly. Otar at one moment leaned over to me and said “They think you are one of us.” It was because I had shown deeper emotion. Finally I told them how much it meant to spend time with them and that I was actually going to be moving to Tbilisi within a year. And they applauded rhythmically for some time. I was overcome with joy.
Before leaving I managed to get a few photos of all of us together. And then as they left I received many kisses on the cheeks and not only from the girls. I had gone past being a stranger and was warmly embraced in a farewell gesture that I have never experienced before. I felt privileged to spend time with this incredible collection of musical artists. When they put on their costumes they became mythic representations of their culture. But you know I think I prefer watching them in rehearsals because then I see Tornike Akhalaia spinning like a top and landing on his knees and springing back, Lika Tsipuria practicing her delicate turns over and over and Lika Chikhelidze dancing like a swan, Shota Gongadze effortlessly cool as he struts out to dance and play the drum, the male singers shaking the walls with the force of their sound, choreographer Levan Kublashvili suddenly breaking into a dance just because the music strikes him. I am impressed to see them practice because I see the humans behind the mythic symbols of Georgia and I am amazed to be counted as a friend.
But I was hardly finished with my farewells to my friends in Georgia. I will finish this story next time.
While in Tbilisi I also hunted down puppets in other places. (Puppet = თოჯინა or tojina; plural = თოჯინები or tojinebi; puppetry also = tojinebi.) One of the places I ended up in, which I need to return to, is the Movement Theatre, which was located in Mushtaidi Park near the National Stadium. The Movement Theatre was not a puppet theatre per se but incorporates puppets into its performances. They also mingled dance, electronic music, acrobatics along with puppets into an unusual stew. They had a definite post-apocalyptic patchwork style in their cluttered foyer. Stacks of manikins decorated the lawn. The one show I saw was more of a dance performance in many ways than any sort of traditional play or puppet show. It was definitely an edgier vibe than the other theatres. And will be well worth further exploration.
I also stopped in at the pantomime theatre, which seemed to be in some ways like the black theatre shows in Prague, stylish but low on substance. More for visitors than serious art. About half the show kept my attention.
I mentioned in my last essay that I had run into Nino Namitcheishvili and she had invited me to a puppet performance of Antoine Exupery’s classic Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince. And soon it was time to wander over to the upper room of the Marjanishvili Theatre to watch Nino’s project. Nino gave me access to the light and sound booth so I had a chance to watch the whole performance give in the black box style theatrical space. ‘Black box’ means essentially there is no stage, just a square performance space with chairs usually on one end. Although in this case it was really a white box. White for the desert landscape.
The style was a mixture of live actors and puppets. The prince in particular was played by a young boy. And the denizens of the planets visited were mostly puppets. Lighting and visuals were important for setting the mood, especially in the unforgiving white environment. And the puppets were again, as in Gabriadze and the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, a modified Japanese bunraku style. More than one puppeteer moved the puppets from behind with little rods in the puppets. Bunraku would not have the rods. And the puppeteers were clothed in clothing appropriate for the performance, rather than all black. But I had seen variations of this style at The Little Theater in London, in Prague, and at ESNAM, the international puppet school in Charleville France. The puppets were creatively made. And one figure stood out, a woman all dressed in futuristic blank white to blend in with the desert environment was attached to a shiny scaly snake puppet, thus avoiding the use of strings or rods and giving it a much more sinewy movement. Nino had come up with this idea as a way to give more life to the snake. Seductively done. Serpent and Eve in one.
Meanwhile March 21st was approaching. March 21st is World Puppetry Day. An idea that has been around since the year 2000. In Alaska the day would pretty much come and go without fanfare. But here it was taken fairly seriously, at least by the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre. And one of the things, besides performances of ‘Georgia’, they did was to organize a tojina exhibition. Now I need to tell you one thing that will become more important as this story goes on. In Georgia the word tojina means both ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’. There are many cultures in the world for whom this is the case. And then as in English there are cultures where it is very different. And often when I spoke to people, even puppeteers in Georgia, they didn’t make the rather hard separation between the doll and the puppet that we make. And in fact more than once I did not know which the Georgians were referring to. And so the tojina exhibition turned out to be a doll show.
And what an interesting doll show at that. Dolls in America tend to be of a certain nature. I wouldn’t last very long at an American doll show. It would be like swallowing a cup full of artificial sweetener. Don’t believe me? Search the words ‘doll show’ in English. Then stand back with an insulin injection at the ready. And when the dolls aren’t cute they tend to be kitschy. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Even the ‘creepy’ dolls tend to be postmodern ironic cute. And for a break one gets the big eyed anime dolls. The only interesting trend is the BJD dolls (ball jointed doll), a Japanese idea, that has moved through other cultures, though not without its own issues. There is of course a separate world of genre plastic models and related superhero geek dolls found at comic book and fantasy conventions. And then there are art dolls, but they seem to show up less in the sweet world of the American doll and more in art galleries.
Maia Aladashvili’s detailed Tojinebi (Click for larger images)
But here at the old Silk Factory gallery these dolls were serious art, without trying to be edgy or countercultural. They were dolls as a classical art. And truthfully one could see that dolls being confused with puppets was indeed a very good thing for Georgian doll makers. Because many of the dolls seem to be telling stories. Rather than babies and Barbies these dolls had more character and presence. I was impressed. No mean feat. And indeed one could see a connection between puppets and dolls here. Whereas in America a puppet play made with anything resembling the average American doll would be something done in the worst possible taste, either inadvertently or on purpose to deconstruct the point.
Speaking of tojinebi, I was searching for a puppet museum. I had already finally gotten into the astounding Puppet Animation Museum of Karlo Sulakauri. (Do read about that here!) But I was also looking for a tojinebi museum that was listed on a map as existing near the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I walked to the spot on the map. It was no longer there. In it’s place was an industrial black shiny postmodern box instead. In a conversation with Elene Murjikneli at Budrugana Gagra she told me one day it was simply closed. Soon the building was gone as well. And no one knew what happened to the tojinebi. Ana Sanaia though said she knew. And she gave me an email of a women who could tell me, Nini Sanadiradze, the director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums. (This is not a union as Americans often think of the word. It is more of a civil department.)
I got together with Nini Sanadiradze at her office on Agmashenebeli Avenue. I told her of my documentary project and how I was looking for the missing puppet museum. She said she had the tojinebi in storage, which unfortunately I couldn’t see. But she did have a mock up of a rather exciting book of the collection. As she showed it to me I realized that most of the tojinebi were dolls. Wonderful dolls. Not so many puppets. She also told me of her difficulty in getting good workers in her museums. She said that eventually she wanted to rebuild the tojinebi museum. There was a potential plot of land that she showed me on a map. All very interesting. It was a pleasant two hour visit. She told me to get in touch with her again before I left, she wanted to show me the work she had done on the Nikoloz Baratashvili House Museum.
I contacted her a week and half later and we made an arrangement to meet at the museum. I met her early Sunday afternoon again down near the Gabriadze Theatre. She showed me how she had remodeled the building and redesigned the exhibition. She was proud of what she had done with good reason. We then sat on the veranda and talked for another hour or so. I had thought we might discuss Georgian puppetry more but the conversation turned in a different direction. She said ‘I’d like to offer you a job.’ I was slightly taken aback. ‘Doing what?’ I replied. I didn’t imagine myself simply working in a museum. ‘I’d like you to work with the tojinebi museum.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘Yes’ she replied calmly. ‘So do you want me to help organize the museum?’ ‘Yes.’ she replied. I was a little skeptical. ‘Well right now you have many more dolls than puppets. Can we get more puppets and have a room for them?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied in the same level voice with just a hint of a smile. So I threw this out. ‘Can we have a performance space?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied again. ‘Can we have a room that is hands on for dolls and puppets and for workshops?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied steadily. I put out a few more questions and then I came to this, thinking of the old tojinebi museum. ‘Look,’ I said ‘When people build new buildings these days they tend to make bad postmodern monstrosities. Can we make a modern building that looks like it belongs in Georgia, with elements of classic Georgian architecture?’ ‘Of course.’ She replied steadily and indeed smiling. Finally I just said ‘Okay you got me.’
I had been thinking about something like this for a while now. I was leaning more and more towards wanting to come back to live. I had made some very good friends. I had made excellent connections. I had been intellectually and creatively stimulated. When I talked with folks about music or puppets I had had rich conversations. When I had told various people about my music collection they suddenly perked up, wanting to hear more. Someone had suggested possibly getting me to lecture over at the state university. And there were many other possibilities. And now this…
Before I left Alaska, having put my life into storage, getting ready to spend six months in Europe and Georgia, more than one friend asked ‘Are you planning to move to Europe? Or Georgia?’ My answer was always the same. ‘I’m not planning to move there? But I’m not planning on NOT moving there either.’ I was simply open. It seemed like a time for considerations of things that had formerly been off the table. There was a moment in France when I briefly considered living there. But it was a passing speculation. But since I had been in Georgia I went from wondering why I was even there, especially during the long holiday season when it seemed like I could barely contact anyone. To finding the scales weighing more and more in favor of coming back to this place to live. And now I would say that everything had gone from 60/40 in favor of coming, to 80/20 before I spoke with Nini, to 98/2 with the 2% uncertainty being simply for the unpredictability of life.
I felt I had been in a game of chess with God and now he had me in checkmate. This was the road forward. I would go back to Alaska to finish my commitments for the summer, to say farewell. But Europe now had me.
More next time as we start to say our farewells to Georgia and go out on a small full dress tour with Erisioni.
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One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
Svaneti is a province in Georgia in the Greater Caucasus Mountains with the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe; Ushguli at 2,100 meters (6,900 ft). It is buried in snow about six months of the year. Until recently the roads were so fierce and unpredictable that the village remained essentially in the Middle Ages culturally. The roads are still quite dangerous. And so Ushguli has preserved strange towers that make it look like something Tolkien forgot to describe in Middle Earth. Improved roads now take visitors up the mountain sides today, mountain roads festooned with crosses for the dead who drove off the path. But as recently as the 1990’s not only Ushguli but much of Svaneti was living in a tribal past. Soviet Communism never penetrated too far. Even the Georgian Orthodox Church found its beliefs with mingled with animal sacrifices of a not too distance pagan past.
Mariam Khatchvani’s film Dede (pronounced day-day), which opened in Tbilisi Georgia in February 2017, after being featured at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, among others, is set in the near feudal world of Svaneti in the 1990’s. And you’ll have to remind yourself of that when you watch it. Filmed in Ushguli and other Svaneti locations it has the feel of authenticity that comes from a filmmaker knowing exactly what she is seeing. Khatchvani in a Svan herself and tells a story partly based on the stories her own grandmother told her. And in case you were thinking that the tribal past sounded like a romantic place to visit Khatchvani is sure to make you rethink that notion. In an earlier short film, Dinola, also based on her grandmother’s stories, and some of the harsher Svan traditions, a woman who loses her husband must marry the first man who then proposes. And leave her child with her late husbands family. Dinola is almost told from the child’s perspective.
Dede is the full perspective of the mother. It is a slightly different setting but recognizably the same basic story. But now it is much more complex. With three men and one woman and their relationship to her. But again the issue of child loss through tradition comes to the fore. Without going too deeply into the subtle and intense plot twists, which need to be seen without any advance knowledge, we can say that the issues with the child eventually recreate a winter trek through the deep snow directly based upon Khatchvani’s grandmother’s story.
The film is beautifully shot in Svaneti by Konstantin Esadze, which gives it far more production value than any Hollywood special effects could possibly match. Everything is real, because Svaneti, though now more accessible, is still there. Khatchvani uses stillness. She is unafraid to study the faces, the behavior of her characters. Giorgi Babluani is the only professional actor in the film. For anyone who has ever seen the original French/Georgian film 13 Tsameti he is the central figure in that extremely dark film. All of the other actors in Dede, as in Dinola, were Svan amateurs. And that is hard to believe. Especially in the central performance of Dina by Natia Vibliani. Natia plays the role with such conviction and honesty that I was surprised to find that she was not an actor at all. In two moments of emotional connection she conveys beautifully the depth of human longing and tenderness.
Now this is the part of my story that would be hard to replicate anywhere but Georgia. And why I am reviewing this film for you. I was in Tbilisi. I also have many Georgian Facebook connections. So I was curious as to whether Natia had a Facebook page. Why yes. She did. And so I wrote to her. And lo and behold within a few weeks we were sitting down in a cafe in the Saburtalo area, not too far from my apartment, for an interview. One thing I have come to understand about Georgians is that there is almost a innate curiosity about people and things. And so after a bit of communication back and forth we eventually found time to meet. And the reason it took a while, apart from the fact that she had to come back from an Egyptian film festival, is because her job keeps her quite busy. Natia she is a policewoman! She had studied law at university and was now doing security duty at the airport. This really made me laugh. One minute I’m watching her on a screen. Then I’m getting in touch with her. And she’s with the police. Only in Georgia!
We had a friendly and natural discussion, she in no way has let her film experience affect her. One thing that was important for me was to clarify parts of the film I may have misunderstood since there were no subtitles. Yes the film was about a woman whose child was taken from her due to ancient tribal codes. One character dies in a mountain car crash off screen. She was taken to another village to live while her son had to be left behind. We then entered the meat of the interview. (Which can be viewed below.) Why she was chosen to play the role. How she portrayed her character. How she felt working with professional actor Giorgi Babluani. Eventually we simply talked about ideas and places. I shared a few Alaskan stories and images. Natia had very recently gotten married. She wanted to take on more serious policing responsibilities and yet the idea of being in another film was also intriguing to her. One thing that was clear to me was that no matter what else happens to her Natia would always look at this time of her life as a unique moment.
While Dede has been shown in a few festivals it has not arrived in any English speaking countries yet. But I know one day it will. Mariam Khatchvani has made a very special and personal film well worth seeking out on disc or download someday. I would not have sought out Natia had the film not been excellent. My only small criticism of the film was that I would have wished that the scene where Natia’s character Dina had to walk through the snow to get back to her child had been more developed. But this is really a minor flaw. It was an excellent and heartfelt first feature film.
In an earlier essay I lamented the lack of mature films in our times. I mentioned the glut of comic book heroes and science fiction fantasy culture that surrounds us today. And many of these symptoms of cultural sterility can be found in Georgia as well. But not being made by Georgians. Dede is the kind of film we need in such hollow times. A film of honesty and reality set in a specific time in a specific place.
More Georgian stories are coming!
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I had found the location of Erisioni, the traditional Georgian music and dance troupe as I was walking down Rustaveli Avenue (see this story). I stopped and read the word on the side of a wall where I had a vague idea that they were located. I knew just enough of the Georgian alphabet to slowly read the script. It looked like this: ერისიონი. The official office was closed but I knew that this was the place. And I knew to return someday closer to noon. So at the beginning of February I came back. I readied myself to be misunderstood and to misunderstand as I tried to get passed the language barrier. I entered the darkly lit building and carefully stepped up the paint cracked stairs where I could hear music joyful filling the building. Accordions (called garmoni in Georgian and tuned in a natural state) were releasing the expressive melodies to the pounding of the doli, a handheld Georgian tom-tom drum. Instructors were calling out to dancers from behind an old door in the ornate cavernous building. (For a look inside another section of this incredible structure read this.)
I had been told that the offices were on the 3rd floor by a girl speaking broken English in my first trip. And so I continued on up the aging stairs. One problem, if this was a European reckoning of the floors then the ground floor was the not the first floor. But suddenly I was at the third floor in America and the second floor in Europe. And the stairs ascended no further. And so I stopped at the top. Incredible male voices rang out from behind one massive door. Then there was another old door opposite. I cautiously entered. I said Gamarjoba (Hello, but literally Victory!), then tried to let the woman at the desk know that I spoke English. She then allowed me to enter the heavy dark wood door behind her. And I was greeted in halting English to Jemal Chkuaseli, the venerable Chief Conductor and head of Erisioni, a man I remember seeing on the Erisioni ‘Georgian Legend’ DVD, which had been recorded in 2002. He was pleased to meet me and shake my hand. Soon I was joined by another man Otari Bluashvili, the General Manager of Erisioni, and the man who really handled the day to day affairs of the troupe. Otar spoke English well. And so I explained that while I was currently working on a documentary about puppetry in Europe I had an idea about eventually doing a documentary about Georgian music and dance. They were pleased to hear it. And they graciously gave me open access to the practices and rehearsals.
They immediately walked me across the hall to where 15 or more men were just beginning a second practice session for the day. The men greeted me and then Jemal conducted them in an ancient hymn, a song so profound that I could feel the hairs on my arm raise. Eventually they sang more songs affiliated with the actual show. Jemal let his son the actual choir leader Shermandi Chkuaseli resume his duties. The strength of their voices overwhelmed the emptiness of the large room. It was a sound that physically effected my body as well as my essential being. No performance on a stage could be as powerful. There were no microphones here. Just an oceanic swell of vocal vibrations. It was an excellent introduction to a few of the people who would inhabit my world for the following two months. The next day I would beyond that door hiding the musicians and dancers.
I arrived to meet Otar. I told him that I would not be trying to photograph or film the practice yet. I just wanted to take it in without putting something between myself and the experience. I am appalled when I find people at a concert or some other unique event and they are present yet hidden behind devices to capture poor video of something that they will look at only briefly and then never again. One is only present in reality once. And this is a principle I try to follow as often as possible, even when visiting puppet theatres. Even when I am recording it I try to watch the real show more than the my little screen. Or else what is the point?
Thus I was invited through the door where I would spend many hours in the subsequent two months. The dancers were stretching and and leaping, twirling and jumping in preparation for the rehearsal. Musicians were playing short bursts of well known tunes. They were about to run through a complete hour long version of the show. And I was sitting directly in front of the center of the hall. The nearest dancer would land a less than a meter away. A few other people were also watching this with me. Otar was sitting next me to explain a few things. Soon it was showtime.
The performance was like an explosion of dynamic rhythm and melodious charging sounds. It was a ritual I would watch many times. And eventually I was able to understand the order and rhythm of most of the dances. Though occasionally they would switch one dance for another that I hadn’t seen yet. An official live concert would run to more than an hour and a half. All of the performers would be in traditional dress. The men in chokhas, the women in the many complicated styles of regal dresses with headdress and scarves. But here they were dancing in their black practice clothing.
Lines of men and women swarmed the stage. Shota the dancing drummer came out. Male voices filled every cornice of the grand hall. Three garmoni played a bold tune as drums and a bass guitar hit a driving beat. Suddenly there were sharp turns of melodic structure, fragments of harmonic dissonance. The male voices sang songs like yodels, songs that seemed to emerge directly from the earth, Songs like locomotives building steam as they careened down the tracks. Eventually there were numbers that featured the women, who seemed to float across the studio, men who stamped and jumped and spun. One man seemed to be able to turn like a spinning top all the while jumping on his toes. Another young wiry dancer named Tornike seemed to spin off into the air and land on his knees then coil up again from his knees and back down again like a slinky toy. The men danced with a ferocity and daring that had obviously been developed in years of warfare as Georgia has been the endless target of invaders for millennia. Meanwhile the women seemed to be on another plane altogether, which fairly sums up my observations of Georgian culture. The women were grace and beauty incarnate. And one interesting point in all of this. Though the men and women dance together in this show, they rarely, if ever touch. And that again says something rather instructive about Georgian culture.
I would come back over and over again. I would watch individual dances repeated and repeated. I would hear the songs the shook the room. One singer Ilia had a voice that could shatter glass. Eventually Shota the drummer came up to me and asked for a photo. So did Tornike. And in fact most of the singers became curious about what I was doing. Nina spoke more English and was able to talk with me a little eventually more and more dancers and musicians approached me. And when I made an online album of about 200 photos I became everyone’s friend. Eventually Otar would ask me to come along on the bus with them for a small version of the full dress performance. But I’ll save that story for another time.
Meanwhile I’ll say this, if this had been my whole experience with Erisioni I would have considered myself extremely fortunate. Yet there was indeed more to come!
დიდი მადლობა ერისიონის ყველა ჩემს მეგობარს.
1 / 4 /2018
Meanwhile deep thanks to those who have contributed to this journey along the way. It would sound like a cliché to say I couldn’t have done it without you, but it’s the absolute truth! Anyone wishing to help out too can easily using the PayPal link below. Thanks, Byrne
Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.
‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.
Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.
Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.
So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.
And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…
One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.
I asked Gela about the spiritual content of his work. The Saint Matthew’s Passion, though abstract, is loaded with suggestions of pilgrimage, prayer, deep beauty amidst struggle. He confessed in my interview with him that though he also said he was not always the most Christian man, something does come indeed through… I think he was being modest. His work has a depth that is quite hard to ignore. And the more I have spent time watching his unique shadow theatre the more I am inspired to push the boundaries of what can be said and felt through this medium. Especially in the realm of shadows and light.
Budrugana Gagra has in many ways been like a creative home for me here. I feel that I can drop in at any time. And even if the puppeteers present don’t speak English very well I always feel welcomed and accepted. Gela, who is in his late 70s, looks at me as ‘young’ visitor. At one point he told me told call him Bidza Gela, Uncle Gela. An honor indeed. Gela actually stopped me at one point when I mentioned that it my home away from home. He said “No! It’s just your home.” I had told him of what had happened in Alaska. (Click this to read that.) I replied “Then it’s my Georgian home.” He laughed and agreed with that. I will continue to visit my friends at Budrugana Gagra. They play about once a month in the ‘small room’ at the Rustaveli Theatre. If you ever come to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend that you do, then you must seek them out. (Links below.) And then you will understand the beauty and meaning of shadows and light.
20 / 3 2018
And here is Budrugana Gagra’s website. Go visit them!
And you can read about my first visit with Budrugana Gagra here.
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