When the adventurous puppeteer Basil Twist presented his large-scale abstract interpretation of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in Chapel Hill, North Carolina this past April, he was realizing a long-held dream. Ever since creating his glorious underwater "Symphonie Fantastique" to Berlioz's music in 1998, which The New York Times said was "like listening to music with your eyes," he had been hoping to work with another orchestral composition. The opportunity arose with an invitation from Emil Kang, executive director of the arts at the University of North Carolina, to take part in the Carolina Performing Arts celebration of the 100th anniversary of the seminal Stravinsky work. "I knew Basil would do a distinctive, forward-thinking reinterpretation," said Kang recently. "It's absolutely wonderful."
Twist first thought that he would create a small piece to a piano version, as he had with Petrushka in 2001, presented at Lincoln Center as part of the Great Performers "New Visions" series that year. "Then, I realized that this was the big project I'd been waiting for and grooming myself for since the Berlioz," he said in a phone conversation. "Rite" is performed October 15–18 at the Rose Theater during the White Light Festival, with live music performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Jayce Ogren. Twist's sparkling "Pulcinella Suite" and "Fireworks", also set to Stravinsky scores, are on the same program. "It's very meaningful to me to have my work seen in the context of the White Light Festival," he said.
Like his "Symphonie Fantastique," Twist's "The Rite of Spring" has no narrative. It's a two-part "ballet without dancers" with sections titled "Adoration of the Earth" and "The Sacrifice." Except for a closing solo performed by Christopher Williams, there are no dancers. "I'm going for a new level of abstraction," Twist said. "But you can't escape the grandeur and meaningfulness of the music. It suggests conflict and effort. I thought of how the music speaks to our world and what people have gone through over the past 100 years."
Twist found inspiration for the imagery in the horrific British Petroleum oil spill in 2010 — the largest in history — that killed 11 people and emptied an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days. "I remember seeing images of the oil, like black ink, gushing, gushing into the pristine waters and engulfing birds and grasses," he said. "That spoke to me of our time, our crisis — man's challenge to learn how to control our machines and work with nature."
From the beginning, Twist knew he would use a lot of silk in the piece. When working on Mabou Mines' gothic fairytale "Red Beads" in 2005, he transformed fabric into sets and puppets using only the wind to move them. "I love silk's wildness and fluidity," he says. In classes, he has taught students how to use just cardboard and fabric in their shows. He loves using smoke as much as he does silk. "I like its hugeness and its lightness," he said. "There can be a menace, chaos to it as well." This feeling intensifies during the final moments of the work, when his puppeteers, dressed in black tuxedos, become barely visible on the stage, struggling against imaginary machinery, as if trying to sail a ship in rough seas. In a way, they represent the original members of the audience at the 1913 premiere of "The Rite of Spring" in Paris, who rioted because of its dissonance and unusual choreography. Not surprisingly, Twist's version is technically difficult to produce, but it's a moving stage picture, wedded to the music.
Born into a San Francisco family deeply appreciative of puppets, Twist has been an innovator since childhood. His maternal grandfather, a big band bandleader in the 1930s and '40s, loved puppets. At the close of his shows he would bring out string puppets and manipulate them on top of the piano, so that with their small batons it looked as if they were leading the orchestra. Although his grandfather died before he was born, Twist's grandmother gave him those puppets when he was 10. His mother was a member of a puppetry club and held puppet shows for children. And by the time he was 12, his father had built him a serious wooden puppet theatre.
In his teens, Twist found little opportunity to study the craft in the United States but in time he learned of the École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières, France, the center of puppetry in Europe. He became the only American to win acceptance into its three-year training program.
Over the past 20 years, he has worked in theatre, dance, opera, and film, including productions of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Addams Family, winning numerous accolades and awards. Twist's production of Respighi's opera La bella dormente nel bosco was presented at Lincoln Center Festival in 2005.
"The subject of 'The Rite of Spring' is perfect for the White Light Festival," said Jane Moss, Ehrenkranz artistic director of Lincoln Center. "Basil's illumination of the music is profound." Visit WhiteLightFestival.org for more information.