Review: Head Tripping the Light Fantastic in ‘Symphonie Fantastique’

NEW YORK — A most uncommon and exquisite troupe of dancers has returned to New York, to the HERE arts compound in SoHo where they made their debut 20 years ago. And aren’t we glad that these frolicsome and majestic beings are kicking up their heels again, or would be, if they had them?

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Review: Head Tripping the Light Fantastic in ‘Symphonie Fantastique’
, New York Times

NEW YORK — A most uncommon and exquisite troupe of dancers has returned to New York, to the HERE arts compound in SoHo where they made their debut 20 years ago. And aren’t we glad that these frolicsome and majestic beings are kicking up their heels again, or would be, if they had them?

They’ve expanded, of course, in scale and presence, as performers are wont to do once they’ve become stars and toured the world. They occupy a larger stage now and are framed by a more upscale production. I had worried, to tell the truth, that they might have grown too big for their, er, seams.

But from the moment they first glimmered into my view on a recent Saturday, like ghostly fireworks on a cloudy night, I found myself slipping into a fugue of irrational, unadulterated joy. Such is the enduring and improbable enchantment that can be wrought by a bunch of wet rags.

Anyone seeking pure, thought-exorcising escapism — the kind provided by acid trips and dreams of flying — need only plunge into the churning waves of “Symphonie Fantastique,” the puppeteer deluxe Basil Twist’s re-imagining of Berlioz’s 1830 musical masterpiece as a water ballet. Accompanied by a single virtuosic pianist, Christopher O’Riley, its performers — who float, twirl, unfurl and swirl in a 1,000-gallon tank of water — are nothing more than pieces of cloth and plastic.

But Twist, a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant," has the Pygmalion gift of coaxing inanimate matter into supple and seductive life. He has applied this talent to downtown drag shows (“Kitty Killer,” “Arias With a Twist”), Broadway musicals (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Addams Family”), blockbuster movies (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) and lavish dance productions (Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” and “A Winter’s Tale”).

In such works, Twist created a variety of memorable creatures that included an anthropomorphic Amazonian jungle, an elegant puppet nightclub band; a vintage Bohemian New York artist, Lee Nagrin, resurrected as a commanding effigy only weeks after her death (in “Behind the Lid”); and a tuna fish-themed nightmare sequence (for “Oh, Hello, on Broadway”). But “Symphonie Fantastique” remains his chef d’oeuvre, a piece that swims beyond the confines of literal representation to find visual equivalents for the sensual experience of music.

To achieve this goal, he picked a doozy of a template. Subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts,” “Symphonie Fantastique” is Berlioz’s musical representation of an opium reverie haunted by its dreamer’s obsession with an elusive, beautiful woman.

You don’t need to know the background to appreciate what Twist has done with it. For he is not trafficking in picturesque scenarios a la Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” that turn classical evergreens into storybook narratives. Here, what you are watching never intrudes on or obscures what you are listening to; the discrete sensory experiences become, uncannily, one and the same.

This occurs through the manipulation of various pliable materials by a team of five never-seen puppeteers in wetsuits. Sheets as simple as bed linens, fringed shawls, Mylar panels and undulating feathers drift in and out of view, behind the glass wall of a vast aquarium. Andrew Hill’s essential lighting is a spectrum of saturating color, from ashen grays to deepest crimson.

As to what the figures specifically resemble in the mundane world, these are some of the words I scribbled helplessly in my notes: “photographic negative,” “sea anemones,” “wheat fields,” “goldfish,” “ectoplasm at séances,” “the marble folds on the Winged Victory of Samothrace.” These are all entirely inadequate descriptors.

Listening to music without words — not only classical but also jazz — we tend to create highly personal, impressionistic galleries of what we’re hearing. In the novel “Howards End,” E.M. Forster enters the mind of Helen Schlegel, a young woman listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which for her conjures specific visions of gods and goblins. These analog fantasies are translations, and to some degree diminishments, of what and how Helen hears.

Twist’s rendering of Berlioz transcends such problems of representation. Instead, his terpsichorean feathers and fabrics hypnotize us into a state that approaches synesthesia, in which we seem to be hearing with our eyes, or seeing with our ears.

The doubling of the original size of the water tank (it originally held 500 gallons) and the substitution of a live pianist for a recorded score have, if anything, only enhanced that response. O’Riley and his piano are visible in the shadows beneath the velvet-curtained tank. Between movements, he can be seen in a state of brooding contemplation — cracking his knuckles, rubbing his forehead, burying his face in his hands.

It’s as if he fears all that ravishing, whispering, thundering music has somehow run away from him and taken on a life of its own. It has, of course.

Twist’s ballet is a reminder that what we call ineffable art may be a product of meticulous planning and execution. But it also cuts loose from its carefully arranged moorings to visit places that even its creators didn’t know existed.

Production Notes:

"Symphonie Fantastique"

Through June 17 at HERE, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, here.org. Running time: 55 minutes.

Credits: Created, designed and directed by Basil Twist; lighting by Andrew Hill; production manager, Neelam Vaswani; stage manager, Liz Haroian; pianist, Christopher O’Riley; puppeteers, Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons and Lake Simons. Presented by HERE, Kristin Marting, founding artistic director, Kim Whitener, executive director.

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