JOINT EFFORT: Beren Belknap in The Firebird.

THE FIREBIRD. Director Janni Younge, choreographer Jay Pather, repetiteur Fiona du Plooy. Music by Igor Stravinsky. Presented by Janni Younge Productions, IMG Artist International and commissioning partners. THERESA SMITH reviews

PUPPET DRAMA The Firebird is a study in contrasts. Wooden puppets dance with flexible people, dreamy myth meets stark reality, abstract conceits like creativity vie with raw emotion like fear.

Using the music Igor Stravinsky created for Sergei Diagilev’s Ballet Russes, director Janni Younge has reimagined the story. Drawing on the symbolism of Fokine’s original choreography, she and choreographer Jay Pather place the fairy tales of the glowing bird, which is both blessing and curse, within a South African context.

The stage is dominated by a huge white egg suspended above the performers for most of the show. Onto this egg is projected a series of Michael Clarke’s animated sketches. As the dancers and puppets embody various forces and emotion on the stage we watch impression of our history above them.

So there is a narrative of sorts to be followed if you can keep an eye on both streams of visually arresting images. The story is that of our country over the past two decades, starting with exuberance as The Seeker (Jackie Manyaapelo) is inspired by events like voting and the building of houses and the starting of a family.Her interactions with various characters like the guide (Ntombi Gasa) or innocents (fragile-looking child puppets in various states of creation) sees her passion take flight but eventually she is awakened to the reality of inequality, anger and suffering.

As The Seeker around whom the story swirls, Manyaapelo is delicate and winsome, but in dance stakes she is outshone by Shaun Oelf’s elegantly haughty Creative Force (his barrel jumps are a thing of beauty), the lithely athletic, as always invested Andile Vellem and the rest of the male dancers.It was also a treat to see expert puppeteers Craig Leo and Beren Belknap step out from behind the puppets to create their own characters. The snake and bird puppets which represent insight, passion and creativity are pitted against an articulated, scary beast of negativity and watching the bird and beast dance around each other is pretty jaw-dropping. That is, until you spot the magnificent dragon. Which breathes fire.

As Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama in 2010 Younge’s first outing of Ouroborous was as filled with symbolism, mythos, quirky puppets and gorgeous imagery but needed editing before it gelled to become an exquisite interrogation of the cycle of life. The Firebird on the other hand started at Artscape Theatre as a cohesive production and almost sold out in Grahamstown before they even got to the National Arts Festival.

While puppetry in South Africa, and Cape Town especially was boosted by the presence of the creators of the War Horse puppets, Handspring Puppet Company, growing to the point where we had a puppet festival and a category for puppet work in the Fleur du Cap Awards, the past two years have been dry. No festival, no award nominations and only a handful of puppet oriented works at the National Arts Festival.

Even this year, The Firebird on the main programme is one of only two which uses puppets, the other being creepy dance solo Watching, ceci n’est pas de deux. On the Fringe programme there are uBom’s Waterline which uses masks and Langa Yanta — Monster Hunter and Rat Race on the Family Fare programme. Jungle Theatre use masks in Butterfly Dreams while at least two of Andrew Simpson’s productions use shadow puppetry.

The Firebird, which has sold out after it’s first performance in Grahamstown, will next travel to several outdoor venues around the US — having been commissioned by international arts management corporation IMG Artists — taking with it some of our best dancers and puppeteers.

It once again proves South African artists’ capacity to create an intricate work of art using puppetry. But, where are the smaller productions that use puppets to bring the abstract to life in a country where language remains more of a barrier than a communication tool?

Cape Times