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 tender tableaux 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 bird 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.


  1. Magali ChouinardMay 3, 2018 at 3:53 PM

    I just read your article about the White woman show... Thank you very much for your comments and interesting descriptions of those moments you had with the characters. It was absolutely wonderfull to be part of the Orbis Pictus festival... A lot of very nice memories... Magali :-)

  2. All the thanks to you - it was such a magical performance, truly amazing. I hope you still offer everyone such magical displays - we need such art more now than ever... especially the children of today's digital generation. The effect that the White Woman show had on the people (young and old) was incredible. The little children just sat there, absorbing the whole thing, gesture by gesture.
    I try to go to the festivals whenever I can - and have enjoyed some very good performances at Charleville-Mézières, but I think yours here in Reims was one of the best I've ever seen. Thank you so much!


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