Basil Twist

Since someone asked, I thought I’d write up another post about Basil Twist. I suppose I should start by saying that I didn’t actually end up meeting him. The day he was supposed to teach our class, everyone arrived just as nervous as me, and after about fifteen minutes Lake Simons showed up instead. Lake is a puppet person who has worked with Dan and Basil, and had come to teach our class the week before. She was fabulous as a teacher, but I’ve never seen any of her work, so I can’t really say much about it. She came and told us a story about how Basil was totally stressed out because he was loading out a show he was working on with life size puppets. I don’t know anything else, so let your imagination work with that.

Last winter I went and saw Basil’s production of Symphonie Fantastique. When I saw it, it was the second or third time they had produced it. The piece is a sort of underwater ballet of objects set to a piece of music by the same name. The piece is abstract (has no plot line), which I found a little funny, since one of the innovative things about the symphony when it was that it has a story. You sit in the theater in front of a huge black wall. In the middle of the wall is a small curtain. When the piece begins the curtain rises and through the hole in the wall you can see into this huge tank of water. Since you can’t see the puppeteers, and your seeing it all through a piece of glass, I found it oddly like watching a flat screen tv. Partly the piece seems to be an exploration of what you can do with a really large tank of water. There are all sorts of different materials that interact with the water differently. They use air bubbles and light, and lots of other things I couldn’t identify when I was in the audience.

One of the thrills (I think) of watching puppetry is the part of your brain that spends the whole show going “so, how do they do that?” In a show where you can see the puppeteers sometimes you can indulge in figuring out how they make the objects do what your seeing. But watching Symphonie Fantastique there was no way to figure it out. After about the first 20 minutes I gave up and tried to get my engineering part of my brain to stop. That worked until they started doing things which I was sure were impossible. (The thing I thought was impossible I later learned included a refracting mirror) The whole piece was really awe inspiring and magical. And when it ends, after seeing this whole very clean refined performance, suddenly six very wet puppeteers in black wet suits come running out to take their bow. Afterward you are allowed to walk backstage. There is is water everywhere, puppets hang from every available space, everything is dripping, and the sound of a pump fills the air. The chaos is totally overwhelming.

There are some pictures on Basil’s site, but since you don’t get the movement, I don’t think it really does it justice. Another way to try and get the idea is to look at his work in the Harry Potter movie (the third one). I had read somewhere that he worked on the Harry Potter movie, but I didn’t know it what way. I saw the movie about a month after I saw Symphonie Fantastique, and it was really obvious where his influence was. Apparently the director really didn’t want to use CGI for the Dementors, and so got in touch with Basil. They did a whole series of experiments with underwater Dementor puppets, but it became clear that it wasn’t a practical method for film. So the director took the videos of the underwater puppets to the CGI people and asked them to base their work on that. The dementors in the movie, the way they and particularly their clothes move, is very much like some of the work in Symphonie Fantastique.

Basil has done tons of other things. He seems to be one of those people who has done it all, but thats the only work of his I’m really familiar with. His other stuff is also supposed to be amazing…

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