Sunday, November 30, 2014

Greedy, beady eyes...

Having dragged out my bead boxes from under the bed a few weeks ago, I decided I would make something to decorate a blank corner of the room. The something in question is progressing, very slowly but surely, due to poor working conditions.

It requires more natural light to work with the colours and a little less help from two fiendish felines who enjoy nothing more than deftly delving paws into any work-in-progress and propelling anything they can fish out, preferably with great noise for better effect... Each bead session is therefore closely watched over by two sets of greedy, beady eyes - ever-ready for a lapse in my attention.

No wonder there's still some way to go till it's finished....

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Performance and Puppetry in Le Palais du Tau of Reims..

I have an impressive backlog of blog posts that I still haven’t actually got round to writing up, let alone posting on the internet planet. So, here’s one on a truly other-worldly set of marionnette/mime spectacles that I saw in the spring time, as part of this year’s Orbis Pictus festival in Reims .

The festival is organized by David Girondin Moab, founder of the Compagnie Pseudonymo, and qualified marionnettiste from the ESNAM (Ecole Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette) at Charleville-Mézières, and Angélique Friant, founder of Succursale 101.

For the past five years Orbis Pictus has been held in the illustrious setting of the Palais du Tau. Indeed, the archbishops’ palace once accommodated future kings of France prior to their coronation – la cérémonie du sacre - in the cathedral of Notre-Dame

Today, for the duration of the Orbis Pictus festival at least, the palace houses a variety of strange beings in its banquet halls, regal anti-chambers, and chapels. The world of la scène is explored in its different aspects with performances which draw all the arts together to great effect; dance, mime, acting, puppetry, plastic arts, music and lighting. Some of these were loud, boisterous and humourous, others quiet, atmospheric and haunting. All played on the senses , using irony, introspection and the unexpected to make us question where art and life, the real and unreal begin and end. The two spectacles that I moved me the most were just incredible, well, breath-taking...

La Femme Blanche, performed by Canadian artist Magali Chouinard, was literally hypnotic. Rows of adults and children alike were squeezed into the floor space of the majestic chapel, yet instead of being distracted by their digital gadgetry, and therefore a distraction to the artistry, everyone was mesmerized. 

The silence was a pin-dropping absolute and even the slightest click of a camera seemed utterly irreverent. Without words, the White Woman drew in her captive audience as she drew out the various objects from her suitcase, liberating these and giving life to their forms. The portraits of the adult, the child, wolf and crow were intertwined in tendertableaux vivants  as the puppet forms and puppet master were blurred. 

The White Woman animated all around her, centring herself around a shrouded, skeletal tree, with a benevolent Georges Méliès-style moon face suspended from its branches. 

The silence of the performance and its monochrome colours completed the ethereal ambiance. I can’t even remember how long this lasted, but it was if the audience had drawn in their breath at the beginning and only breathed again at the very end, when the spectacle ended with a flutter of origami birds forms, composed of written texts.

The performance, Kumo, was equally astounding and also made the audience catch their breath. Yet, as the incredible mime and illusion artist, Romain Lalire, spun a visual web in front of our eyes, the show was punctuated by sighs of disbelief and appreciation. This amazing artist seemingly floated into position, in the great banquet hall of the Palais du Tau

Dressed in a striking black costume, that was of a timeless, genderless form, he proceeded to strike us all dumb with Kumo. This was no rabbit-from-a-hat show; the magician was not only master of the art, he became part of this magic, as he himself seemed to evaporate and then take form in the effects he was creating. Kumo, meaning cloud in Japanese, certainly had the audience held captive in the weightless density of its trompe-d’oeil effects, offset by atmospheric music.

The following clip won’t do the performance full justice, however it will perhaps enable others to discover the world of Romain Lalire. Past and future performances and projects can be followed on the artist's site.


The powerful mix of artistic medium and effect took me back to my childhood experience of Footsbarn Theatre, and not, as it happens, by chance. A number of the performing artists at Orbis Pictus had been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the essence of Footsbarn.

Little did I know when I went to watch their great adaptation of Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1976, on Newlyn Green in Cornwall, that I would see the modern-day Footsbarn Theatre group performing here in France almost forty years on. 

As a child, the magic of the experience was the unique atmosphere. The Footsbarn big tent was surrounded by inflatable castles and various stands, all of which were positioned between the rather staid bowling grounds and Orion art gallery. This was a case of art and theatre, but not as people knew it, and here was freedom for children and teenagers but not as we’d previously known it either. I can remember the fuggy ambiance of the tent, with the performers looking like living gargoyles or characters from Chaucer (not that I really knew much about either at that age). The adults and children alike were taken over by the infectiously liberating spirit of the event. This bawdy display of updated Shakespearean humour was accessible to all; in fact, the title of the work had been changed in order not to discourage the locals and ended up as Midsummer’s Madness. Just as magically as they had arrived, Footsbarn packed up and left again, to travel around Cornwall, bringing art to their public in other unusual rural venues that departed from the more traditional, haughty settings.

If we thought this first taste of Footsbarn Theatre was a revelation, when the troupe returned as part of the Festival of Fools in 1980 and set up camp on the other side of Penzance, we thought Woodstock had arrived in town. At that time I don’t think Glastonbury Festival was the iconic event that it is today, or certainly was not for young teenagers then. Here again, Footsbarn sought to reach its grass-roots audience, and could do no better than the fields of Ponsandane camp site. The festival offered craft markets, art workshops, side shows, games, music, food stands, beer tents and theatre. 

Sadly, the magic didn’t last; Footsbarn Travelling Theatre took to the high road, leaving Cornwall and indeed England in order to cover the six continents. In 1991, Footsbarn based themselves in a farm in the Auvergne region of France, finally deserting the Cornish barn that the theatre community had used for rehearsals since their formation with Oliver Foot and Jonathan Cook in 1971. 

It is from there that the troupe still prepares its work today, albeit with a far more international set of performers than in its early days. I took the children to see Sorry at the Manège de Reims in 2010 and spoke to one of the original Footsbarn performers from the Cornish days when they used to parade in the streets, singing…

Footsbarn has come to town,
Jugglers, acrobats and clowns.
Footsbarn has come to town,
All the children dance around.
Come and see, it's a very funny play
We'll put on for you today.
Seven o'clock the show begins,
Up my kneecaps, down your shins.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

La Toussaint - with shadows and sunbeams...

The first of November, La Toussaint. is celebrated each year here, as it is in many parts of the world, to remember those who are no longer with us. This year, however, must have been one of the most remarkable All Saints' Day due to the incredibly warm, sunny weather. 

Usually the beautiful pots of Chrysanthemums that line the pavements outside the florists', wait to be taken to decorate graves under cold, grey skies.

Today, Man and nature appeared to be in harmony to celebrate life and living, as well as the lives of those absent. 

In fact, it initially seemed rather strange to think of the deceased in such exceptional conditions, but it soon seemed a good way to look at life and death.

Tomorrow the weather will probably be more typical of the season, and most families will converge on the graveyards to pay their respects in the customary manner. 

With its life-sized statute of the mourning woman, the tomb above must be one the eeriest I've ever seen,  However, in common with many graveyards today, this one provides plants and wildlife a safe haven. All the insects, birds and small animals remind us that life goes on regardless, and that is probably one of its hardest yet most beautiful aspects.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Parallel world of Puppetry in an old Peugeot garage... Pseudonymo.

For the past few years I've been to visit artists' ateliers that are open to the general public for one weekend in early Spring. as part of a Journée Portes Ouvertes that the city council organises. This year the name Le Jardin Parallèle caught my attention and so on the grey Sunday afternoon I set off to discover what it was...

In fact, I hadn't prepared my visit and hadn't really taken in the fact that the atelier was within the old Peugeot premises. I was armed with the address and not much else.

Not surprisingly, the functional grey façade gave little indication of what lay behind.The place was very quiet; it was just after lunchtime, there were no other visitors and I didn't initially encounter any of the artists or organizers. 

However, I found myself surrounded by a strange group of inhabitants, some of whom appeared eager to greet clueless visitors and lead them onto into this parallel world. Others presided over the events in the main hall of the garage with glassy-eyed haughtiness...

The unsettling tone was set with this mix of bizarre beings, bestial yet eerily human in gesture and attire. Self-conscious mannequins struck poses with greater and lesser grace and sophistication, making the visitor feel more like a voyeur, entering a realm that was familiar yet in no way reassuring.

Some figures seemed to be utterly world-weary and indifferent to the proceedings, slouching with great insouciance, but still made me feel very ill at ease. 

Other individuals offered a cool elegance yet still gave the impression that the visitor was intruding in this personal space and their caginess seemed to radiate off them.

Finally I met a human who kindly showed me around the building and introduced me to the man behind Le Jardin Parallèle: David Girondin Moab.

In fact, Le Jardin Parallèle houses La Compagnie Pseudonymo, which itself is vitally linked to other important artistic ventures in the universe of marionnettes and stage performances - le spectacle. 

The company Pseudonymo, set up in 1999, is the work of  Moab, a former qualified student of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (L'ESNAM)  of Charleville-Mézières.

David Moab currently runs Pseudonymo, alongside Angélique Friant with the objective of helping and housing other marionnettistes of varying nationalities, often young graduates of l'ESNAM, to establish themselves both in the Champagne-Ardenne region and far further afield.

Now occupying the former Peugeot garage, Le Jardin Parallèle appears to be a world away from the prosaic practicalities of the automobile industry. However. Le Jardin is above all a "laboratoire marionnettique", dedicated to the creative mechanics of a universe that brings together all the arts.

These all form a work composed of painting, sculpture, stage-sets, props, costumes, video, music and light, along with the marionnettes, of course. Each component plays an integral part of a whole, like essential cogs in some weird, organic machine.

Not only does Le Jardin deal with the different facets of creativity in le spectacle, it also covers the adminstrative and technical aspects involved in the running of a marionnette company.

When I spoke to David Moab, he told me of the company's various projects to get young people aware of, and involved in, the world of marionnettes. And what a world... I wish I had known more about this as a child/teenager and had had my eyes opened to the possibilities of this rich, vast area of creativity.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of puppetry didn't extend any further than the occasional Punch and Judy show and I certainly didn't know of the existence of an actual school, devoted to the marionnette.

Over the past few years, I've been to the Festival Internationale de Marionnette at Charleville-Mézières and so have finally managed to get a glimpse of what this particular universe offers the spectators and the artists behind its creation.

As mentioned, this art form draws on all the arts in a unique manner, creating a whole that plays on the senses and our apprehension of reality itself.

Here is a vast theatrical play of illusion as the real and unreal intertwine, leading us to question what is concrete and what is creation.

The factual, fictive and fantastic are woven together in le spectacle, often based on novels or short stories that draw on the blurred images of life, death and the ghostly middle ground between.

The representations and realities of Man's existence are mirrored, reflected and refracted in the marionnettes, "Ces demi-morts".

I was able to look around the atelier in Le Jardin, and here I did indeed see the eerie forms of the marionnettes which have a troubling realism. Animals, humans and the inbetween populate the shelves and storage spaces, in various stages of creation and finition...

One of the most important displays of the le spectacle and the marionnette is the festival Orbis Pictus, again organzed by David Moab. Once more, the many shows that make up this festival took place in the Palais du Tau this year, with a certain number being held in the courtyard, overshadowed by the imposing cathedral,

The name, Orbis Pictus, is a reference to the written work of this name - the title meaning "The visible world in pictures".

This book, dating back to the 17th century, was an encyclopaedia destined for children, in order to awaken their senses to the world around them... Seen in this light, the choice of name seems very appropriate...

Back to Le Jardin Parallèle; I'll eagerly return for a visit next Spring, but I really can't wait to go back to the Orbis Pictus festival, and, of course, Le Festival Mondiale des Théâtres de Marionnettes.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fauna in the Mountains of Paris and the Champagne region...

I know of two 'mountains' here that don't immediately strike me as meriting such an imposing title. I had the pleasure of visiting both of these with blue skies above. The first of these is the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, the summit of which is occupied by the Panthéon, and whose flanks house La Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter.

The façade featured above is to be found in Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest and most original neighbourhoods in the city, preserved from Baron Haussmann's vast urban redevelopment project under Napoléon III that swept away much of Medieval Paris.

The beautiful façade is to be found on a building that dates back to the 17th century, although the artwork itself is in fact from the late 1920's. The four panels present different scènes champêtres, featuring a variety of beasts, birds and burgeoning forms of vegetation in a style that refers back to the Renaissance. The artwork was realised with the Italian technique of sgraffito, wherein the plaster is scraped (graffiare = to scratch) to build up a relief.

The façade was created by a certain Italian artist, Eldi Gueri, commissioned by the charcuterie Facchetti at a time when the sgraffito technique had a certain popularity, not just in France but in other European countries too. The charcuterie shop no longer exists, but the premises are now occupied by the fromagerie Androuet. The owners have commissioned their own painted panels, below the 1920s masterpiece, but the result is rather 'cheesy', it has to be said, which is why I cut them off the photo.

From one impressive façade to another, situated in the second mountain, la Montagne de Reims, with one its prestigious Champagne-producing villages....Rilly la Montagne.

 It is a highly-coveted area in which to live, with some beautiful old houses whose domains reflect the wealth of the champagne vignerons, past and present.

Naturally, the vineyards themselves no longer have any grapes, following the harvest period, but the vines are striking with their beautiful autumnal leaves.

Again, the slopes of this mountain generally seem more like those of a hill.

At the end of the day, the autumn colours appeared more radiant, and despite the fading daylight, there were treasures to be found in the undergrowth.

Several amateur mushroom hunters were gathering edible treasures, but these precious mushrooms seemed to be outnumbered by their highly toxic relatives.

Many of these toadstools were worthy of a fairytale, clustered together in deadly toxicity....

Their bright forms occasionally gnawed by some creature, though probably not the wild boar that populate the woods.

Others were just perfect in their fatal beauty...

Certain toolstools were more subtle in form and colour, but certainly just as deadly as the more flamboyant varieties.

Some appeared to be shrouded in ashy lace, delicately toxic...

Others appeared to lead away from the main track, as luminous, ghostly forms in the dusk...

Sadly I didn't see any beasts in the wilderness, but not for the lack of trying...

But I did manage to see their traces; here are wild boar (sanglier) tracks in the mud... And I did get very muddy trudging up and down the slopes, but it was worth it.

Well, no beasts sighted, with the exception of this tame, feline specimen...