Basil Twist’s Dogugaeshi at the Japan Society is a tremendous feast for the senses. The stage curtain opens slowly to the sound of a single beating woodblock. It dramatically reveals another curtain, hanging from a painted frame. The second curtain opens in the same slow pace to reveal yet another, smaller, curtain and another smaller frame. This scene continues until the audience is drawn into a vortex-like tunnel of frames. The stage is not a stage at all, but a beautiful Japanese-style room that extends into eternity.
The dogugaeshi is a centuries old mechanism used in traditional Japanese puppet theatre. This intricate form of puppetry was developed in rural theatres on Awaji Island where puppet masters craft intricately painted sliding screens (or fusuma-e) for their productions, set up on various tracks on stage. These beautifully crafted backdrops slide back and forth, revealing other sets of screens behind. Many of the fusuma–e are drawn in perspective to create an incredibly complex and dynamic production in which images are transformed in what, perhaps, can best described as a grand optical illusion.
NYC-based puppet master Basil Twist first encountered this style of puppetry while at a festival in France. The award-winning artist is the only American to graduate from the country’s prestigious École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette and has since created various critically acclaimed pieces of puppetry including perhaps his most famous work Symphonie Fantastique originally presented at the HERE Arts Theatre.
With Dogugaeshi, first commissioned by The Japan Society in 2003, Twist infused the traditional Japanese art form with his distinct style of abstract, non-narrative storytelling and visual suggestion. The production features over 100 hand-painted scenes inspired by and drawing from traditional Japanese iconography, including the Koi fish and the dragon.
Although abstract in narrative, Twist draws from familiar motifs from other Japanese works of art including those of tradition versus modernity, preservation versus time and change. He additionally seems to set the production in Awaji and Tokushima, the birthplaces of this art form, by including video interviews with elderly women from the area reminiscing about the dogugaeshi performances of their youths. There is also a direct reference to the building of the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Project, which linked these remote Japanese islands to each other and the rest of Japan, opening up trade (and thus modernity) to the area.
The use of projected video of interviews, television broadcasts, and scenic locations serves to pinpoint the non-narrative in various times and places, while certain projections (such as that of a haunting Shinto shrine) add another dimension of abstraction, absurdity and at times surrealism. Additionally, the use of music (popular and original) is extremely important to the piece, not only aiding in illustrating the passage of time through the use of radio broadcasts, but also accompanying the movements of the panels on stage, dramatizing each slide and animating the inanimate objects, making them dance and imbuing each with a Shinto sense of spirit.
Musical director Yumiko Tanaka not only created the music for the production, but also performs on stage on a rotating panel. The shamisen (a traditional Japanese instrument) musician and experimental artist sits in traditional garb performing on various instruments and at times interacting with the scenes on stage.
White Tanaka is the only human face the audience sees on stage, a group of puppeteers, including Basil himself, work behind the scenes, covered completely in black from head to toe while working the mechanisms that slides the screens back and forth. The puppeteers also work the only actual ‘puppet’ in the production: a gorgeous white fox with a long tail and wise-looking whiskers that hang from the sides of its snout. The fox appears throughout the production, peering in from various parts of the stage, proving its magical existence and playing playful tricks on the audience.
Dogugaeshi is a breathtaking display of craftsmanship and creativity. Twist’s interpretation is an homage to traditional Japanese puppetry while simultaneously imbuing his abstract and experimental vision to the art form. The production is slow, like the breath of a sleepy dragon, and equally as terrifying. It is scary, tragic, beautiful, and funny and it forces the audience to patiently experience the beauty of each closing curtain, one gesture at a time.