PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Dancing Puppets & Emerging Technology

Episode Summary

Lisa Niedermeyer hosts this episode exploring the connections between puppetry in contemporary dance and emerging technologies such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence and spatial computing. The episode focuses on a piece titled "Underground River" which was conceived and directed by Jane Comfort and developed in residency at Jacob’s Pillow. We hear from puppet artist Basil Twist, the director and choreographer Jane Comfort, and one of the performers, Stephen Nunley.

Episode Notes

Lisa Niedermeyer hosts this episode exploring the connections between puppetry in contemporary dance and emerging technologies such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence and spatial computing. The episode focuses on a  piece titled "Underground River" which was conceived and directed by Jane Comfort and developed in residency at Jacob’s Pillow. We hear from puppet artist Basil Twist, the director and choreographer Jane Comfort, and one of the performers, Stephen Nunley.

Watch an excerpt of Underground River: https://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org/jane-comfort-and-company/underground-river/

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I'm Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it's my pleasure to introduce Lisa Niedermeyer who will be your host for this episode exploring the connections between puppetry in contemporary dance and emerging technologies such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence and spatial computing. Niedermeyer has a deep history at Jacob’s Pillow, including being a summer staff member for multiple seasons, performing, teaching and producing other artists here, as well as playing an integral role in developing our Dance Interactive platform. 

LISA NIEDERMEYER: Jacob’s Pillow has had a number of notable dance performances with puppetry through the years, including Crystal Pite’s company Kidd Pivot in the contemporary work Dark Matters, Teatro Hugo and Ines’ Short Stories, and the Shadow Puppet Theater of Java, to name just a few. Pillow roots to puppet lineage go all the way back to Kermit Love who in 1942 was in residence as costume designer for Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo. Love would continue to design costumes for dance and also go onto work with Jim Henson, creator of the globally recognized Sesame Street. We have Kermit Love to thank for the beloved characters of Cookie Monster and Big Bird. And within a two hour drive from Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts is the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where the largest university program for puppet arts finds its home. The Pillow Archives are rich with history and video documentation of puppetry and dance. In today’s episode we will hear about one tiny dancing puppet in particular from a movement theatre piece titled Underground River which was conceived and directed by Jane Comfort and developed in residency at Jacob’s Pillow. We will hear first-hand accounts from the puppet artist Basil Twist, the director and choreographer Jane Comfort, and one of the performers, Stephen Nunley. I myself was first enchanted by this tiny puppet sitting in the audience at Jacob’s Pillow as a Pillow summer intern. I would soon after that go on to be a company member with Jane Comfort and inherit this piece from the original cast. I was lucky to collaborate with Jane Comfort for over 10 years. I have since retired from performing, however the lessons I learned from this puppet have stayed with me. Even now in my current work as a creative technologist, I continue to reference key principles of puppetry when I’m learning an emerging technology. Starting with discovering qualities unique to the situation, whether that something is a puppet, an object, a material, a medium, an interface, or a new tool.

BASIL TWIST: There’s many ways that people can attach to puppetry, on strictly a visual level. If you are interested in dance there is definitely an interest and some appeal of puppetry just as pure movement. And there is also something I think that people really love and are thirsty for, that even though we do a very elaborate show with lots of illusion and trying to trick the audience, it’s real old fashioned what we are doing. There is no computers involved. And we are so used to computers and video and that sort of imagery and the really simple magic of when a puppet comes to life in front of you is so primal, that I that think there is a real expanding audience, that the world we live in now makes people thirsty for something that puppetry provides.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: That is puppet artist Basil Twist speaking in a 2002 PillowTalk with scholar Maura Keefe in response to a question about the growing audiences for puppetry. Since the 2002 recording of that talk the modern world has only increased in our daily exposure to the computers and video Twist is referencing. And I wholeheartedly agree about the simple magic of seeing something come alive right in front of you. In my creative practice as a visual artist I use a variety of technology tools, including 3D scanning, 3D printing, and generative artificial intelligence. So I recently went, out of curiosity, to the Apple store, to experience the latest in what is referred to as spatial computing. I demo’d the Vision Pro mixed reality headset, a headset that offer virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in the same device. I was guided through learning the interface where you do not touch a screen, use a mouse, or hold anything in your hands, but rather you use hand gestures to interact with apps and content. The device tracks where your eyes are focusing to connect your gestures. I was guided through watching 3D video and immersive photos that were trying very hard to be as close to real life simulations as possible, in what I assume were attempts for me to emotionally bond with the device. When I took off my headset my first thought was, the content creators for these headsets really need to spend more time hanging out with puppet makers. Now, stick with me on this one. I am not imagining puppet shows inside a headset. I’m not being that literal here. A core principle of puppetry is discovering the unique qualities of an object or material. In the same PillowTalk from 2002 Twist demonstrates for us this very principle. He speaks about the discovery of what is uniquely possible with a puppet’s qualities and embodiment. And then what happens when this exploration leads to a movement score. Twist also demonstrates, in contrast, the act of forcing an instructive choreography on the puppet. Maura Keefe then introduces us to the world of Jane Comfort’s Underground River.

BASIL TWIST: This is a puppet I built in France. It’s a string puppet and I’ve had this puppet for about nine years. And this puppet has taught me a lot about puppetry, and about movement and making things come alive. A string puppet is really hard to work because unlike the Petrushka puppeteers where you have your hands right on the puppet there is this distance with the strings and there is this indirect relationship. You don’t have your hand right on them. You’re working, you know, a string is just a string, it’s loose. So it, it, you are working with, with gravity, with the object. It becomes much more of a listening to the, to the material.

MAURA KEEFE:So part of your training must have been in puppet fabrication then. It can’t, it’s just not about working the puppets, but in how to, how to construct them as well?

BASIL TWIST: Yeah well this, this came out of a, this, I built this in my puppet school in France. So it was a specific course on string puppets and it’s based on a model called the “Dwiggins Model,” which was and American puppeteer who, who was an engineer, and who figured out a way to build a very well-proportioned, well-balanced string puppet. This is a definite variation on it because I’ve made him very, this puppet, very long. But, let’s see, one thing, I started with this puppet, it’s a little hard for me to work him up in the air. But the thing about a string puppet, I was saying is it is really hard to control him, it’s really hard to manipulate him, to force him to do things. If you try, and I’ve worked for a long time trying to make him walk or trying to make him do a step, left and right. And you know, he swings so much. He’s like a big pendulum. It’s really hard to, to make him do it. And so I kinda gave up on that. I thought, Well, I can do other stuff. You find the things he does well. He can fly very well (audience laughs). But one day I was fooling around and, and I found this, like this amazing discovery, to make him, kinda, dance. I just started to make him, to bounce him and sort of just do this very simple movement with the strings. And I’m not, I don’t even really know where his foot is gonna go or what he’s gonna do next. It’s just that I’m kind of, I found this right rhythm that’s naturally in his body (audience laughs). And when I just let, if I, if I tune into him and what his natural pendulum action is, he become so much more alive than when I try and make him do something (audience continues to laugh). And that was a huge discovery for me, to see that, that he’s possessed of real qualities that I can discover. And that if I listen to him and follow him and let him do what he does best. And now I’ve started, when I perform with him, I normally perform in a context that’s a very informal context, where there’s maybe music playing and I don’t have a plan, I don’t have a beginning, and I don’t have an end. It’s sort of just like jazz performance. And I can just start to groove with this puppet (audience laughs). I, I find, you know, he starts to drift to the left and then he naturally falls back. So I follow that. And, and then recover him and pull him back. And there’s natural things that he wants to do. And if I pay attention to those, he becomes incredibly alive. And it was a real revelation to see, just for, to let go, in a way. Like as a puppeteers are often build to make control freak. They want to control everything. And to actually start to just listen to him and to what, what was natural to him. And then I remember, I found this, there was another moment, you know, this moment where I found I kinda had these strings at the back, and make him fly. They kinda only served for that. And then, one day, for example, I just, I grabbed wrong string by accident. And, and I was using this string to lift his legs like forward instead of back, and what it did is, it gave him a completely different attitude, that he’s much more opened up. It was just these kind of amazing discoveries that, that came just from experimenting and playing and not trying to, to force things on this puppet. But to just let him do what is a, what comes naturally to…

MAURA KEEFE: So the next thing I want to ask about is, some of you might be familiar with, Jane Comfort’s Underground River, which was commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow and performed here in 1999. In this performance the dancers create a puppet onstage. It comes out of an umbrella, a sort of sparse umbrella with thin pieces of cloth hanging on it. And then they build the puppet on stage. And Basil was the visual effects consultant on it. I actually want to ask you: How did you and Jane came to be working together?

BASIL TWIST: I had worked, Jane had done some choreography on another show that I had done that had also involved, special effects. Some puppetry but also just general visual effects and creating. In this earlier show we worked on it was a theatre piece where someone was going crazy, so it was kind of the images, hallucinations that the actress had. I created the different hallucinations. So Jane was looking to do this piece about a woman who was in a coma and inside her mind, what was happening, kind of the internal landscape. And felt like that what I had done in the previous show would be appropriate.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: Now let’s hear Comfort’s account of how she came to be working with Twist and having a puppet in her choreography for the first time in the post-show talk from the 1999 performance of Underground River.

JANE COMFORT: And then with Underground River, I worked with Basil on an off-Broadway show and I just thought he was such a genius. I loved his ideas. He had this whole, there was a dismemberment to “Love Her.” Someone gets dismembered and there all these parts. And then later it’s a take on “Telltale Heart” and then the body parts come back to haunt the murderer (audience laughs). And these, these arms and their doing this to a Stephen Sondheim song, oh, “I Must Be Losing My Mind.” And like these two arms come up and then the legs come up and an extra arms come up, of course (Audience continues to laugh). And these hands came around the side, and I was just determined to work with him. I started Underground River up here at the Pillow right over here in the St. Denis Studio and we showed it as a work in progress. And it was just movement, and Toshi’s songs, and text. And I had this time to think about it when I got to New York. And I thought maybe what this piece needs is magic realism. And I just thought I need Basil Twist. So I asked him if he could just make a few effects, and I rarely work with a set because I don’t understand the point of a set except to be pretty. And, so it was just going to be minimal effects, very childlike and homemade, put together. And I knew he was a puppeteer but I just thought that, No this piece doesn’t seem to need a puppet. But at one point I said I would love for the focus to go (a couple of indecipherable words), loved to be really tiny and maybe there is some prop we could work with. And then we started talking about a puppet. And, and so it came that we did have a puppet show. And he gave us a practice puppet that is just strips of polyester and umbrella spokes. And I remember pulling it out of the bag and looking at it and thinking, That’s not much. Well it’s just for practice. But boy, the next day the dancers came and we pulled it together. And the way he moved it was so (a couple of indecipherable words). And I said, Basil we only want this guy (audience laughs). This is perfect. There’s something about the polyester, it works so well. Like it’s so real to us.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: We return to Keefe and Twist describing the dancers, who were not trained puppeteers, and the process of developing the puppet’s movement score.

MAURA KEEFE: The thing I was thinking about, in both seeing the show in 1999 and thinking about it today is that not only did you have to figure out how to construct this puppet but to train these dancers to be puppeteers. Could you say something about what that was like?

BASIL TWIST: Yeah. Well they were great. They were really great. Which I’ve had occasionally, I’ve had encountered dancers working with puppets and it’s very hard for them sometimes. There are some dancers who can’t get out of their own bodies. They can’t put, channel something through their hands. It’s something in their hands, they are awkward with it. They can’t lose themselves, like your body has to go to sleep and all your energy needs to be…

MAURA KEEFE: Because they spend so much time trying to get the audience to look at them.

BASIL TWIST: Cuz they’re, yeah, cuz it’s so much about their own body. But Jane’s dancers were actually really great, were really open to my suggestions.

MAURA KEEFE: In a post-performance discussion that summer one of the dancers said one of the ways that you coaxed them into thinking about how to do it was asking them questions. Can the puppet do this, can the puppet do that? And that then it, they felt like they sort of emerged but…

BASIL TWIST:It’s really looking at what the puppet can do. What are the, as they explored we found what the best things were for the puppet. And then that became the obvious things to do. And, I mean, that’s, that’s always the case. You don’t want to try to make a puppet do something it can’t do. And so with them that was part of the exploration, for them to get into the puppet was to explore what was possible with it.

MAURA KEEFE: Could you say something about the scale of this puppet, because before this we’ve seen these dancers dancing fully and they are so much larger than what obviously that puppet is.

BASIL TWIST: It’s obviously a tiny puppet and it’s taking all four people to work this puppet. They are all four of them involved in it (audio in the background). Right, it’s like it’s almost too many people. But they had one person working one arm, one person working the other arm, one person working both feet and one person working the head. And that also I think helps as they have to search to work together (audio in the background continues).

MAURA KEEFE: The dancers all agreed in talking about that this summer that they were surprised by how magical the puppet became to them. That at first the labor of it was intensive but that it took on such a strong character and a powerful presence for them both as performers but also in the audience reaction. Because it is just a tiny little thing that has come out of these wires and fabric. This must have been your material to come up with and construct.

BASIL TWIST: Yeah, I mean it was just a very simple thing. We wanted the puppet to be assembled from very simple elements. So there these white ribbons that were hanging down from this umbrella and they pulled the pieces and they snapped together (audio continues in the background). The thing that they were commenting about, when you have more than one person working on a puppet, when you have four people or three people, it’s different when you are a puppeteer and you are in control of everything. That is one aspect of puppetry there could be one puppeteer doing everything. But when there is four people working together, you’re somehow, the puppet becomes this lightning rod for all of this energy of these different people and intentions. And the puppet takes on, you can see it you are contributing one part to it, maybe just moving one hand but then you see the whole thing coming to life and it’s really amazing when to work collaboratively like that.

LISA NIEDERMEYER: “A lightning rod for energy and intention.” Ah I just love that description. And having myself been the puppeteer of the two legs of the puppet, singing acapella harmony and moving with three other humans in synchronicity, it was ensemble work in its purest sense. Celebrating what is possible collectively that is just not possible in isolation. That was one of the key lessons of working with Jane Comfort. In many ways she herself as the director and choreographer was a lightning rod for energy and intention of the collaborators she brought together in her creative worlds. Returning to the idea of learning what is possible with a new technology, I’m inspired when new technology is pushing beyond the defaults of a one consumer one device experience to what is possible collectively. What is possible when technology is not an isolated experience but rather can be a lightning rod of energy and intention? Next let’s hear from Comfort dancer Stephen Nunley in the 1999 post-performance talk. Nunley was one of the original dancer/puppeteers who worked directly with Twist in the creation of the puppet choreography. 

STEPHEN NUNLEY: He basically asked us questions, like can the puppet do this, can the puppet do that? And he just suggested things and we sort of figured out how to work it out. And it just sort of choreographed itself, and then Jane added a couple of suggestions. And it all kinda came together. And we just sort of figured out which parts worked best, with who working them. And it was very magical, I think. I don’t think we realized how much that puppet became a central point of the piece until we actually performed it. And I always thought it was wonderful that the section that we danced the least had this huge response (audience laughs).

LISA NIEDERMEYER: Nunley’s summary of the process highlights the ease of the choreography unfolding because the process was based in questions as opposed to a process based in instructions. Next we hear from Comfort about how the puppet’s choreography was added to when it was left around at rehearsal and a young child played with it.

JANE COMFORT: This week we were working with the puppet and Stephanie’s nephew was here and he had made all these little paper dolls he was playing with and little characters he was playing with. And then he was transfixed with the puppet, I think he’s nine. We put it down and he took it and he took every single stick and he made this puppet do stuff, and I was so fascinated with him, And he had this puppet standing on his hands and walking. And I thought, We have to add that to the show (audience laughs). 

LISA NIEDERMEYER: If you go online to Jacob’s Pillow Interactive you can see a video excerpt of this moment in Underground River. When the tiny dancing puppet does a handstand and the audience erupts in laughter. Because the puppet isn’t just doing a trick. It’s discovering right in front of us that a handstand is even possible, and the puppet’s delight in that discovery. The rules of gravity have shifted, and the puppet then tries to jump higher and higher and higher to see what other rules of gravity can shift. And eventually so high that he floats and flies high above the dancers’ heads. He turns the air up there into water when he starts to flutter kick and do the backstroke and we really hear the audience laughter. And all along this puppet is the embodiment of the inner world of a woman in a coma who is trapped in her body. That is the premise of Underground River. And the beauty of the puppet continuing to discover what it can do, is potent and deeply moving even as we laugh. When the puppet turns its head to see us before it goes back to sleep and the dancers release the umbrella spokes gently and it is once again limp and unalive, we collectively hold our breath in the audience. So if that is what is possible with just a few umbrella spokes and strips of polyester ribbon, my expectations have been set pretty high when trying out a new Apple device starting at $3,500 and claiming to offer experiences that are lifelike. “The uncanny valley” is a term used in technology to describe the unsettling feeling humans can experience when audio-visual simulations closely resemble humans but still aren't quite convincingly realistic. I agree that the Vision Pro is indeed an innovative introduction into spatial computing as a new interface and I do encourage you to go try it. However it is still defaulting to “uncanny valley” provoking content as its showcase. It is technology trying too hard to force a realistic simulation and in my opinion missing out on the discovery of what it can uniquely do well. I came away inspired to double down in the creative approaches of working with what is, exploring what is possible collectively, and finding lightning rods for intention as I play with the technology myself. In closing I’ll leave you with Jane Comfort being asked about the vocal warm up the dancers do before performing Underground River, which is more than just a technical vocal warm up. As Comforts states: “It puts us in the spirit.”

MAURA KEEFE: Could you guys say something about your vocal warm up for Underground River and what it’s like? I mean…


ENSEMBLE: Oh the warm up? (Starts singing)

JANE COMFORT: That puts us in the spirit.

[Music begins, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at DanceInteractive.jacobspillow.org and of course through live experiences during our Festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us soon, either online or onsite.