Assassins? Beyonce? A brutal subtext about exploitation? It must be choreographer Jasmin Vardimon’s singular take on Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. Vardimon’s vision is a multi-layered, uncompromising one, which owes as much in terms of influence to the Expressionism of Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari as it does to Lotte Reiniger fairytales and Commedia Dell’Arte.
With a tee-pee sitting front and centre of the stage, she uses bewitching shadowplay for the creation of the eponymous puppet by David Lloyd’s eccentric Gepetto; and this tent also acts as a billowing skirt for the David Lynch-esque Blue Fairy siren (Aoi Nakamura), onto which twinkling cosmic lights are projected. The production sets out its stall early – definitely not for really small children, yet full of enchanting scenes.
Maria Doulgeri’s Pinocchio is a coltish blank canvas, an exceptional dancer with open features, who falls as easily into splits, acrobatics and balletic positioning as she does urbane and loose-limbed jazz with the louche Cat and Fox (the brilliant oleaginous double-act Vros Petronijevic and Esteban Lecoq), who befriend the unsuspecting puppet. Doulgeri’s depiction of the wooden boy – bullied, beaten, almost hanged from a tree, then curled into a foetal position – is quietly heartbreaking. The cruelty of adults and ne’er-do-wells is the main leitmotif here, together with an underlying human frailty, while the only real allusion to Walt Disney (albeit Lady And The Tramp) comes in a pleasingly surreal sequence when a couple enjoy a tipsy restaurant date complete with shared spaghetti.
Dramaturg and co-designer Guy Bar-Amotz draws out the morality of the narrative by providing context, particularly through Steven Glaser’s velvety voiceover about the boy-puppet’s emotional development. This is fine, but constant reiteration pushes the show towards heavy-handedness at times. Some scenes could use a little trimming to keep the storyline tighter, as well; a couple of children were starting to squirm a little in the audience at the halfway point.
Comedic respite comes in the form of circus marionettes Stefania Sotiropoulou and Alexander Stavropoulous, kindred spirits to the boy. Yet even here, as they bond and jerkily dance to Beyonce’s Crazy In Love, there is an undertone of innocence undone and youth sold off. The subsequent circus scenes, while spectacular, seem shoehorned in as plot points, though.
Above all, the inventive choreography and mimetic physical theatre shines through the ensemble work. The all-too-brief scene when Pinocchio’s nose grows as he tells lie after lie has the dancers thumbing their noses in a chain to realise the extension. Elsewhere, the narrator is brilliantly represented by UV-lit white gloves forming facial features.
Bookending the production, a rippling human daisy chain is a kaleidoscopically gorgeous addition. And Vardimon’s eclectic musical choices are, as always, second to none, from a gorgeous song by Vidia Wesenlund to Raymond Scott’s ethereal keyboards. Some judicious pruning of certain scenes, and more fluidity in others, and she could have a masterpiece of family dance theatre in the making. In spite of such flaws, though, it’s still a highly original, thoroughly rollicking ninety minutes.
Pinocchio is on tour until May 28th. For more details, click here.