Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE have been curious about the journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the fifth part. More will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. (Follow the link below to read the story.)
Kote Marjanishvili was a famous Georgian theatre director from both the late Imperial period through the early Revolutionary Era in Georgia, Russia and the Soviet Union. I was visiting a theatre named after him on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi on the appropriately named Kote Marjanishvili Street. I was there to see Nino Namitcheishvili, a name I’m still wrestling with. Tinatin Gurchiani had come through again finding the theatre’s puppet mistress who was glad to invite me up to her office in the stately building.
Nino was a friendly curly black haired woman, a bit quirky (as puppeteers often are) and dedicated to her craft. As I set up my camera for an interview I couldn’t help noticing the bird in a cage behind her next to a couple of similarly sized puppets. Somehow it seemed fitting. Once you start seeing things through the eyes of puppetry everything begins to have connections with the art. On the wall was a piece of colorful fabric that had once been used for the backdrop of a puppet show. Behind me rested a community of puppets that all looked like they had been prepared for a barbecue, with skewers sticking out of their backs, as they laid face down a table.
Puppets and Bird
We spoke about her connection to puppetry.We spoke about her connection to puppetry. She had discovered it almost by accident as many others had having already embarked upon a theatrical career. But had been enchanted by world of puppets. We spoke of Georgian theatre, Obraztsov, rod puppets, and the Georgian reaction to puppet performances.
After the interview she showed me the puppets individually all of which had somewhat blank faces yet with plenty of features to make them possible to be read in many different ways during a performance. There were many parts of a Georgian village present. Men, women, a priest. And obviously these were not hastily made creatures. Georgia was indeed connected to the traditions of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world in terms of puppetry. One of my prized possessions gathered on my scrounges through Georgian used bookstores was a large photographic book in Russian on the great puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. And clearly his effect had been felt from Poland to Georgia. As I thanked Nino and prepared to leave she told be that she could get me into the theatre’s play the next evening, which was to be my last day in Georgia. And the play was being done without words, so how fortunate for me. And so why not? The day was already busy but why not make it a day to remember.
My last day in Tbilisi was indeed full. At ten in the morning I met Tinatin Gurchiani for breakfast. Our words drifted from subject to subject as she checked in on my progress in an almost proprietorial and concerned way. She apologized for not connecting me with the busy puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. And it pleased her to know that she had been of service to me. And I felt honored to have had made another good Georgian friend. She spoke of her current documentary project. Her earlier film, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear, had had as its theme the dreams and confusions of youth. Her new documentary focused on the longings and reflections of the aged. I told her more of Alaska and my observations on Georgia. Eventually it was time to go. We bid farewell as though old friends. (And I didn’t remember to take even one photo of Tinatin!)
I then moved over a few blocks to the Sukhishvili dance troupe where I had my interview with Nino Sukhishvili and had my second chance to watch the dancers practice. (See my last entry.) A bit later in the afternoon after my last Georgian meal I arrived at Budrugana Gagra to say farewell. Again another fond farewell by Gela Kandelaki, with ‘Medium Elene’ translating for me. After he left I stayed a little later to show Elene some of my other creative work. And then it was time to go to the theatre.
The Marjanishvili Theatre was a classic Soviet style building similar to what I seen in Poland and the Czech Republic: gray, columns, stately. I was seated in a spare seat. And watched the play, which had been based on the same Sholom Aleichem source material as Fiddler On The Roof. It was called Begalut (In Exile) and developed fragments from Shalom Aleichem’s and Georgian writer Guram Batiashvili’s novels. At first it seemed like a comedy. But by the end after a brutal pogrom it indeed proved to be utterly tragic. Told in a somewhat abstract wordless style the play ends very differently than Fiddler On The Roof, which has notes of hope in a voyage to America, with the final image of a grandmother holding the last surviving baby in her arms among the dead villagers. It wasn’t a stretch to feel that the Russian villains in the piece had a special meaning in Georgia of today, a country with fresh memories of the Five Day War in 2008. I left the theatre walking back home along Marjanishvili Street with many, many thoughts of my time in Tbilisi. Returning to the city was foremost on my mind. It had been stimulating for me in the best possible way. Not as a touristic frantic search for experiences. But in the way seeing new possibilities, sparking new ideas, even challenging my American notions of order.
(The following 25 minute video is my reflection on my time in Tbilisi. Enjoy it at your leisure.)
I was awoken early at four in the morning. Shako purposely came home to say goodbye to me. I had said fond farewells for my host Tamar to Shako’s girlfriend Aneta and especially to my Georgian teacher, the seven year old Mariam. The silent man, whose name I never did get, though I know he is Tamar’s husband but not Shako’s father, drove me through the dark nighttime streets again. This time the music was slightly louder. I looked out at Tbilisi thinking about all that had happened since I arrived. There is much I haven’t even mentioned: Meeting photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote, time spent in museums, meeting American expat Steve Johnson and his wife Tamara who own Prospero’s Books, many serious food experiences, time spent scavenging Georgian music on the Dry Bridge flea market and art bazaar and so much more. Finally my silent driver drove me up to the Tbilisi Airport, I took my luggage, now bursting with Georgian artifacts in a new travel bag purchased at the endless Georgian bazaar by the train station, and said to my driver “Didi madloba.” which means ‘big thanks’, whereupon he suddenly smiled for the first time and responded something in Georgian I didn’t understand. And that made the trip complete.
It was time to get back to Paris to finish up this journey. I had puppeteers waiting for me and memories to share.
And when you have the time go back and read all of my Georgia adventures…
On my last day in Brussels I had been invited to visit the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet by Dimitri Jageneau. I must confess I didn’t quite follow his directions and so explored a little more of Brussels than I had expected to both on foot and by tram. Fortunately I had given myself plenty of time to get lost (a good stratagem for finding new places by public transportation) and so arrived just in time to set up for the children’s show of the Three Little Pigs. It was a rather cozy old theatre with wooden seats in an old farm house surrounded by industrial apartment buildings. As the performance was about to begin an older French woman came out ringing a bell and introduced the play, this would turn out to be Biserka Assenova, Dimitri’s mother, once upon a time Bulgarian, a theatre student in Prague in the 60s, a puppeteer in her own right and working several of the characters in this play.
The story began with a little parable about the rain, the wind and the sun that worked together to become a rainbow and then shifted into a marionette version of the classic little piggies. Now the winsome star of this fable was the rather louche wolf. He would enter the stage with a strange monotone song with lyrics that went something like this: ’Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La Youp-La-La-la Youp-La-La’. And so bizarrely infectious was this that I heard several kids afterwards chanting, ‘Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La’. And of course the wolf tries to blow the houses down, the straw, the wood and the brick. But he does it by turning around and around and becoming a mini-hurricane. By the end I was caught up in the story myself and was almost rooting for the unsavory canine.
Apres la spectacle, I met Madame Assenova who was a sweet charming lady with much insight into the art of puppetry. She consented to be interviewed. I also met the two others members of the cast, a couple of younger women just beginning their life of puppetry. I was shown the adjoining museum which was chock full of puppet upon puppet with many from Asia, evidently Dimitri’s father, Franz Jageneau, had become passionate about Indian puppetry in particular and other countries puppets as well. Also gracing this collection were many unusual European puppets as well, including a few by famous Russian puppeteers Nina Efimova and Sergei Obraztsov. I was quite astonished by the depth of the collection. Dimitri demonstrated several of the older puppets from the Péruchet theatre.
Finally I sat with Biserka (a strange name given to her in World War 2 as a tribute to a woman who helped her mother deliver her and died shortly thereafter) for an interview. We spoke for about 40 minutes about her time in Prague, her discovery of puppets and mostly, a common theme for many puppet folks, the unleashing of the imagination. And she was quite eloquent about how the current tendency toward all encompassing storytelling and media, actually stripped away the imagination rather than feeding it. The puppet leaves room for the spectator to create their own version of the story and characters. Again something similar to the Quays’ concept of reading the mask/puppet face which is incomplete. The incompleteness invites completion through an act of imagination.
And then Dimitri sat down for around 50 minutes and spoke again about many subjects related to puppetry. He had inherited the theatre from his father. He had never intended to go into puppetry. And in fact he had a degree in European political studies. But during the course of his father’s decline and death due to cancer he had assumed the mantle of puppeteer. And had done a fine job in continuing the profession and researching puppet history. I’ll save much of what he said for Gravity From Above, but in the end, when it came down to it the point of puppetry in the 21st Century, it was ultimately about simplicity. Another theme that had recurred in my various interviews. We live in a time when things are so abstract that only the simplicity of a handmade creature made of a wooden or some other tangible substance could help us rediscover the value and mystery of the material world.
In the end I left Dimitri, Biserka and Péruchet feeling I had made friends. As I returned through the rain soaked streets of Brussels I felt I had understood more than when I had started. The two main puppet theatres of Brussels Toone and Péruchet were traditional in many ways, though also in their own ways remaining contemporary. They were friendly contemporains on a field without many players. Yet neither of them could claim to be hip or cool. And that connection to the past is what gave them a rich life. Each were multigenerational dynasties and in Toone’s case with a very long history as well. And yet they seemed to be on a battlefront, maintaining the classic style of European puppet art into the heart of the 21st Century. (Even as I write Toone’s future is hanging by a thread. To support them sign a petition. You don’t to be from Belgium or speak French. Just run this link through translation tool.)