LOS ANGELES – Since its premiere in 2004 at New York’s Japan Society, “Dogugaeshi,” Basil Twist’s singular take on a rare school of 18th Century Japanese puppetry, has fueled his push toward non-narrative puppet theater.
An obscure form found mainly on Japan’s Awaji Island, dogugaeshi employs sliding screens of ever-changing patterns that appear to descend in the distance. Twist’s show, which just completed a four-day run at the Radar LA Contemporary Theater Festival, plays with color and perspective. Accompanied by the haunting strains of Yumiko Tanaka’s shamisen (a three-stringed lute-like instrument), it can induce a trance-like state over its 60-minute running time.
“I wanted to make a puppet show that was abstract. So I was working on that, and feeling like I was really cool and it was something original,” Twist told ARTINFO, recalling his first exposure to dogugaeshi while in France. At a puppet exhibit, he found a film loop dating back to the fifties. On it was a sequence of sliding doors.
“I was like what is that thing that’s totally abstract?” he said. “I had also done some imagery of curtains opening one after another. I was like, who are these kindred spirits?”
Twist grew up a third-generation puppeteer in a middle-class household in San Francisco. It was, by his own account, an average childhood, despite his obsession with puppets from an early age. A disenchanting turn at Oberlin College led to an eye-opening experience at the prestigious Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in France. After graduating, he and his puppets moved to Manhattan, where he could be seen regularly in downtown clubs and theaters.
His 1999 Obie-winning “Symphonie Fantastique,” with its use of sundry items like feathers, plastic and glitter submerged and swirling in a tank of water, redefined what a puppet show could be. It was a big break that led to his 2003 commission from The Japan Society which took him to Awaji Island. But on his first research trip, he was surprised to discover that few people had even heard of dogugaeshi.
“It was like this total detective story. People knew of it, particularly the Awaji Puppet Theater knew of it. They used to present something like it in their touring shows but weren’t touring with it any more because it’s difficult to tour with.”
On his second trip, Twist stumbled upon a treasure trove – a large collection of dogugaeshi screens stored in a museum vault.
“Suddenly everything I wanted to know about it just spilled out,” he smiled. “It was a super aha moment.”
When Twist and his team performed for the locals in 2007, the response ranged from effusive to mystified. “There was a high level of curiosity, why the hell is this American doing this?” laughed Twist.
Lessons learned on the Japan tour were more technical than esthetic as the crew of puppeteers took pointers from Awaji masters running the highly complicated show with maximum efficiency. Without their help, “Dogugaeshi” probably wouldn’t have enjoyed such a long tour. “There’s a new weight to it,” Twist said of the show, now in its ninth year. “It just feels like a little more urgency in sharing it.”