Puppet Regimes

a string theory of two recent puppet shows.

The self is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature and die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely form a scene that is presented. — Erving Goffman

Just as choreographer Joe Goode’s use of electronic vocal effects and masks distorted the human voice in order to humanize a puppet (see CR #436), his very interest in adding a puppet itself to his dance troupe was rich with humanistic implications. For what is a dancer if not the puppet of the choreographer, a kind of dummy for the bodily manipulations of a gestural ventriloquist?

By adding a puppet to his piece, Wonderboy, Goode dramatized the question of desire in motion. He made apparent the social origins of the self, the ways in which the individual takes shape from the outside as much as the inside, from forces, often invisible, that push or pull us in certain directions, down certain paths, over to certain fates. And yet, as the puppet himself, Wonderboy, learned to interact with those around him, as the dancers gave him life, made him animate, in a carefully-choreography bildungsroman, he also found his own story. Wonderboy became embodied, a personality, a being in the world, with feelings. Held in sway to others, he held his own.

The use of puppetry was quite different in Betontanc and Umka.lv’s Show Your Face! Their puppet was nothing more than a sack of clothes, with a hood stitched on top. The goal of Betontanc and Umka.lv was not to humanize a puppet in order to meditate on human nature, but rather to decry the dehumanization of the individual by larger systems of power. This was a puppet on the run, panicked and scared, hunted down rather than held aloft. This puppet confronted moments of coarse pleasure among monstrous terrors, and became a new kind of invisible man, not even a man at all but rather a missing person, bullied about by invisible forces themselves seeming out of control. There was no social self here, only a faceless bag of nothing, strung out and strung up in a rendition made chilling by the absence of even a puppeteer in charge. No one in control anymore, only a faceless, Kafkaesque series of trials, with no strings attached.

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