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'Symphonie Fantastique' as Rorschach Test

Date: Apr 11, 2018

Puppeteer Basil Twist revives the abstract show that launched his career


The other night, MacArthur "genius grant"-winning puppet master Basil Twist spotted a face in his aquatic ballet Symphonie Fantastique, currently enjoying a 20th-anniversary run at HERE Arts Center. Considering Twist conceived the hour-long spectacle as an abstract work set to Hector Berlioz's 1830 composition of the same name, he was momentarily surprised to spy it there. But that's part of the show's spell. Because it features fabric, feathers, sheets of plastic and other inanimate objects that seem to come alive when manipulated underwater in a massive aquarium, every spectator sees something different -- even the show's creator.

"I saw a face because the fabric moves in different ways at every performance," says Twist. "People tell me, 'I love the part with the angry doughnut,' or, 'I love the fancy hats' but it's all abstract. I am so happy that people bring their own thing to it."

A third-generation puppeteer, Twist grew up in San Francisco and moved to New York in the '90s where he showcased his talents on the club scene and at downtown theatres. In 1998 Symphonie Fantastique inaugurated HERE's subterranean Dorothy B. Williams Theatre (named for Twist's grandmother), and helped him break through to the mainstream by winning rave reviews, an Obie Award and high-profile invitations. Since then, Twist has created puppet magic on Broadway (the exuberant Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the terrifying "Tunafish Nightmare" in Oh, Hello), on film (the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), and in the opera and dance worlds.

Yet Twist has continued to work on his own scrappy and inventive projects, too (Arias With a Twist at HERE, Sisters' Follies: Between Two Worlds at Abrons Arts Center, and Symphonie Fantastique intermittently all over the world). But it had been a while. So when the opportunity to remount his seminal work was floated, he dove right in.

For those who saw the show at HERE two decades ago, there have been some notable changes. This production boasts a 1,000-gallon aquarium, twice the size of the original. Also, instead of canned music there's a live pianist, Christopher O'Riley, playing Franz Liszt's solo arrangement of Berlioz's symphony. The musician infuses the eye-popping experience with additional drama, pounding on the keyboard like a madman and furiously mopping his brow. Twist explains O'Riley's intense performance is actually a reference to Symphonie Fantastique's backstory, which Berlioz described at length in program notes, in short: an artist's obsessive fever dream about an elusive woman.

"I knew instinctively that it was theatrical to have Chris there," says Twist. "It's as if he is the artist. Our first dress, he wanted to not draw any attention to himself, so he sat there completely still in those awkward pauses between movements. And I said, 'You need to do something' and helped him shape it. He's already so expressive while he's playing, it's just an extension of that into the silence."


Twist says the rest of the physical production is exactly the way it was 20 years ago -- he actually just grabbed everything out of storage. But what has changed is Twist -- at 48, he's leaving the literal heavy lifting of soaked objects to five puppeteers in wet suits -- and the city he loves. "Of course some things needed replacing after all this time but it was almost impossible to do it the way I did before," he says. "I couldn't just go to Canal Street and get that sheet of plastic because that store closed 10 years ago. It became like doing a museum piece, kind of archival."

But any wistfulness is banished when he thinks about the glamorous community that's reassembled to embrace his singular show once more (opening night attendees included burlesque stars Julie Atlas Muz and Dirty Martini, chanteuse Joey Arias and Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell). "I love the mix of audiences that come: kids, classical music lovers, theatregoers and the nightlife world," he says. "All these different groups come and they all have different interpretations. It's been really special to bring the show back to where it started. The world is different and HERE is different and I'm different, but it gives me this amazing perspective as an artist and a citizen of downtown. This show couldn't have been born someplace else. It needed some pretty adventurous people. Plus it's close to my house."


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Basil Twist's Symphonie Fantastique. Photos by Richard Termine.

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