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Basil Twist and Christopher O'Riley

'Symphonie Fantastique'

by Carmel Morgan

March 29, 2012-- Robert & Arlene Kogod Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

You may be thinking, Basil Twist, isn’t he that puppet guy? Yes, that’s right. And you may be thinking, Isn’t this an online dance magazine? Yes, that’s right again. So, why are you reading a review of a puppet show in a dance magazine? Because Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique” features dance. Maybe not as you typically think of dance, but trust me, there was plenty of dancing.

If you happen to be a fan of Basil Twist’s work, then you may know that “Symphonie Fantastique,” which premiered in New York City in 1998, is one of his signature pieces. To Hector Berlioz’s 1830 “Symphonie Fantastique,” Twist choreographed incredibly beautiful and entertaining underwater movement. There are no dancers, and no puppets that you’d recognize as puppets. Instead, there are shapes and colors and textures, slipping past one another, buoyantly bounding across a screen of sorts. A gigantic tank is hidden behind a tiny curtain. The audience in the black box theater sees only a small square. Objects move behind the “screen” – things that resemble feathers and sheets and other surprises. Bubbles shoot up, and there is much swishing, but you never see a human hand manipulating anything. The only hands I witnessed were those of the pianist, Christopher O’Riley, who played with gusto and made the experience so much more fantastic by providing live accompaniment. He wiped his brow on multiple occasions like an athlete after a tough workout. (The performance was an hour long, without an intermission).

I suppose dance has many different goals, depending on the choreographer and the particular dance form. One frequent goal, however, is to translate music into movement, to make music come alive. This is exactly what Twist has accomplished with “Symphonie Fantastique.” And that is why I proclaim it dance. The performance was intimate, and charming, and above all transporting. From a dark room, staring into a small window of water, you are transported to another world. Beyond hearing the music, you see it. You forget where you are, you forget who you are. You enter a pleasant, trippy fantasy where music becomes fabric that catches the light and billows and sinks and darts. It’s an incredibly enjoyable time. When I turned to my companion after the performance was over, I remarked, “Your mouth is hanging open.” She was rendered speechless.

Indeed, it’s difficult to articulate what we witnessed. “Symphonie Fantastique” doesn’t offer much in the way of narrative. What it offers is pure, wonderful reverie. You might understandably conclude that you watched someone’s dream. Shapes floated, fringe undulated, light pulsed, froth effervesced, cloth rippled, colorful tubes shimmied. There was even a cyclone than spun furiously. At times I was reminded of laundry that became animated. It was psychedelic in a way that I prefer to Disney’s Fantasia. The dream was loose and flowy. Whatever you wanted the story to be, it could be, if there was any need for a story at all.

Credit must be given to Twist and his entire team. It was a shock to see, at the curtain call, four puppeteers in addition to Twist, dripping in black wet suits. So seemingly effortless was the dancing that it was easy to put out of mind the human manipulators behind the scenes. Speaking of behind the scenes, following the performance audiences members were invited to take a peek at the complex setup at the back of the stage. I was almost hesitant to go there. It spoiled the magic a tad. Yet seeing how much exertion went into making that magic made me appreciate the magic even more.

Credit also must be given to the lighting designer, Andrew Hill. A very critical part of the show’s success is the amazing lighting design by Hill. The colors, shadows, and sparkles Hill created contributed significantly to the overall emotion and impact of the work. I’m certain that the production stage manager, technical director, and production manager also made important contributions.

In sum, “Symphonie Fantastique” is a modern masterpiece not to be missed. Upon seeing it, you’ll feel confident in pronouncing Twist to be a creative genius, and you’ll rush to see his next production. I’ll bet you’ll also never think of dance in quite the same way.

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