The Material World

Jennifer Krasinski on Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique

Basil Twist, Symphonie Fantastique.  Performance view, HERE, New York City, 2018. Photo: Richard Termine.

WHEN BASIL TWIST'S SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE debuted in New York in 1998, it quickly ascended as a classic work of downtown theater, playing for an unprecedented eighteen month run in the basement space of HERE—an unheard of success for a performance that was billed simply, curiously, as “an abstract puppet show.” At that time there was nothing quite like it, and twenty years later, a stunning revival proves that there’s nothing quite like it still—frankly because there is no other artist quite like Basil Twist.

Twist is both a third-generation puppeteer and a third generation Basil (his real name). After graduating from the École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in France—the first American to do so—he moved to New York in 1989, honing his chops in the downtown club scene, where performers had to learn how to command an often un-sober audience’s attention in order to keep from getting booed, heckled, or a drink thrown at them. (As the history of New York theater arts goes, bygone spaces like Jackie 60 and King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut doubled as incubators for artists and their work—effectively providing master classes in self-creation and self-possession by drag queens, go-go dancers, and other exquisite souls of the night).

Basil Twist, Symphonie Fantastique.  Performance view, HERE, New York City, 2018. Christopher O'Riley. Photo: Richard Termine.

Then, and sometimes now, Twist worked with things he would find in the streets or in garbage cans or wherever someone leaves something in the city. He once fished a pair of harem pants out of his neighbor Lady Bunny’s trash to make curtains for one of his theaters. As he told Joan Acocella in 2013, the idea for Symphonie Fantastique came to him after he discovered a discarded fish tank on the sidewalk. He carried it back to his studio, smoked some weed, and started playing around with it, dunking different fabrics and objects in water, swishing them around, enjoying how they moved. As the project began to grow and take shape, he bought a bigger tank.

“What would an abstract puppetry show be?” Twist asks in the program notes. It’s a winsome proposition: to shift the spotlight from marionettes, dolls, and mannequins to the materials that make them; to make the stuff of the world express itself without the interruption of faces or figures, unburdened by character and plotline. Abstract artists have long reveled in the pleasures of medium and gesture rather than remain faithful to representation, whether relishing thick licks of acrylic on canvas, or unleashing the hand to follow its bliss, or distilling complex ideas into minimally rendered objects. One example: Alexander Calder’s hanging mobiles, kinetic sculptures made of wire and metal cut into shapes and painted vivid colors, so that the eye largely delights in form and motion. (Calder also famously built a modest but elaborate doll-sized circus out of string, clothespins, wood, cloth, and more, which he would puppeteer for both public and private audiences). Writing on the artist in 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre described the mobile as “a private little celebration, an object defined by its movement and having no other existence.”

Basil Twist, Symphonie Fantastique.  Performance view, HERE, New York City, 2018. Photo: Richard Termine.

Twist’s own existential enquiries (well, such as they were) produced an intoxicating concept that one might call fabstraction: transcendence via opulence. Think of Symphonie Fantastique as an homage to swirl, an exegesis on shimmer, a discourse on shante. Brought to life by a crack team of puppeteers including Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons, and Rachael Shane, the show presents a wondrous and bewitching underwater world in which all manner of materials make an absolute spectacle of themselves. For just under an hour, silk apparitions whoosh by, chorus lines of bubbles wiggle and rush upward, tinsel curtains whirl around and around, long feathers swan in and sashay away. Everything dances together inside a thousand-gallon tank of water to composer Hector Berlioz’s eponymous 1830 masterpiece, played live with great tenderness and passion by pianist Christopher O’Riley. Rhythm and momentum, flow and texture: Lighting designer Andrew Hill underscores all with a rich color palette dominated by sultry fuschas, rosy blues, deep violets, and vivacious reds. It is Hill who also gives the piece its gossamer sense of time, the temperature of his lights rising and falling from the bright hot to the crepuscular.

Basil Twist, Symphonie Fantastique.  Performance view, HERE, New York City, 2018. Photo: Richard Termine.

A superior work of pure theater, Symphonie Fantastique is a mischievous wink to cinema too—a kindred spirit of the abstract animations of Oskar Fischinger, and the grand Hollywood showstoppers of Busby Berkeley. The glass of the giant aquarium glowing like a silver screen, Twist’s humble pageant marries the material world with an image thereof—liquefying, in a way, the performance space itself, while luring audiences to dive in and enjoy.

Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique runs through September 2nd at HERE in New York.