Review: Jasmin Vardimon Company - Pinocchio - Sadler’s Wells

Performance: 24 & 25 October 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 26 October 2016

Jasmin Vardimon Company 'Pinocchio'. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Performance reviewed: 24 October

Ninety minutes is a long stretch to fill with dance, even if it comes packaged in physical theatre themed by a story that mostly everyone knows; if only just remembering a childhood warning that your nose grows when telling a lie! A football match is the same length but that is a game of two halves. It’s an especially long time to keep young people occupied and any interpretation of Pinocchio is certain to attract plenty of them. I’m not sure what rationale there could be for having no interval but it seemed to me that this is a show that needs one, if only to avoid some of the ‘filler’ between scene transitions.

That said, there are many arresting moments in Jasmin Vardimon’s excellent interpretation of Carlo Collodi’s late-nineteenth century novel (The Adventures of Pinocchio). This ever-innovative director and choreographer has waved her unique conceptual wand over the story of a wooden puppet that dreams of becoming a real boy, creating a plethora of magical, inventive coups de théâtre, which involve almost every creative contribution.

The face of a narrator is created from the black light theatre technique of fluorescent blue gloves, worn by black-dressed performers against a dark background. The face ‘dances’ with the movement of the three unseen performers’ hands, taking on the image of a kindly, moralistic, cartoon-ish character, articulated by a deep bass (recorded) voice. ‘He’ pops up regularly throughout the many scenes to help the audience play catch-up with the complexities of Pinocchio’s diverse adventures.

Vardimon’s choreography is voraciously imaginative, especially in the descriptive terms of establishing character, such as in the oily, slithering, side-to-side entrance of the Fox and the Cat; and the arresting imagery of a mechanical automaton in Gepetto’s studio, involving several dancers in a complex exercise of weight transfer and balance, as they bring a wooden musical box to life. It was such a triumph that Vardimon brought it back for an encore, more or less book-ending the whole production with this memorable movement sequence. Pinocchio’s particular unwanted skill of nose-lengthening when telling a ‘fib’ is cleverly represented by a cascade of the combined thumbs and hands of other performers. And, the ensemble forms the imagery of a mechanical piston by successively joining hands to elbows and moving their arms as one.

The set is also a triumph of originality aligned with authenticity. Wood – in the form of tables chairs and sundry other items – proliferates above and within Gepetto’s workshop, which is located within a ‘Tardis’ of a tepee, a little cone-shaped tent on the outside, but containing an inventor’s paradise within. Gepetto’s boat is cleverly given the appearance of ‘sailing’ on a sea of fabric although the whale is largely left to our imagination, its insides represented by the stage being enveloped on three sides by a curtain of brown material onto which appears to be painted a ribcage. The multi-talented dancers employ aerial skills to float upside down at the fairground and become weightless marionettes in the puppet theatre.

Disney’s 1940 cartoon film is now more familiar than the novel that inspired it, but Vardimon takes us back to Collodi’s original tale, although, thankfully – for the children in the audience, at least – the darker side of that story is largely left unseen. We are spared Pinocchio killing the talking cricket with a hammer and having his feet burnt off by falling asleep too near the stove. Collodi’s first iteration of the story ended with Pinocchio being lynched and left for ‘dead’ by a mob of children who believed that he was hiding gold pieces under his tongue! Nonetheless, Vardimon and her dramaturge (Guy Bar-Amotz) – both of whom are also responsible for the outstanding set design – retain the undertone of loneliness with subliminal suggestions of abuse, such as the sinister puppet-master aggressively bellowing at Pinocchio for reasons that are not abundantly clear; and children disdainfully ignoring his overtures of friendship.

The notable twist in Vardimon’s telling of the tale comes with the puppet who wants to be a real-life boy, being played by a girl. Maria Doulgeri is completely credible as Pinocchio – even bearing some human likeness to Disney’s iconic, albeit rather feminine, image of the big-eyed, puppet-boy – and she also possesses extraordinary dance skills that suggest both wooden limbs and elastic pliability, as the choreography requires. One cameo where Doulgeri swings a straight, rigid leg around from a sitting position, pulling her body down and into a full headstand before tumbling back into another leg rotation requires astonishing movement dexterity. And the other seven members of this multi-purpose cast are no less versatile. I welcomed the device that helped the audience identify each performer against characters by the motif on the front of their costume.

Distilling Collodi’s adventurous story into half as many scenes as there are chapters in the novel must have been a challenging task, and the arresting visual imagery of the spectacle is occasionally offset by duller moments in scenes which tend to drag along, perhaps mired in the complexity of trying to describe too much detail, thereby encouraging the mind to drift like Gepetto’s little boat. Nonetheless, it is rare for a show to have so many standout moments of originality. The blurb for this Pinocchio promises a ‘wonderful journey of discovery’ and it’s a claim I know won’t make that nose grow!

UK tour details & dates:

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Tristram Kenton

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