Emerging Wonder: A Shadow Ballet

There are some stories that you learn something new any time you read it, and re-reading Alice in Wonderland just before creating this piece, I found how deeply it related to the things I’ve been considering in my environmental and participatory work. While the idea of giving greater importance to nonsense has always stood out, in this reading, I paid attention to the ways that size and position alter one’s perception. 

Lewis Carroll played with time and scale throughout Alice in Wonderland in order to reframe the quirks of British culture. It’s publication in 1865 coincided with the end of the American Civil War, and despite optimistic framing at the time, vestiges of both British and American culture still contribute to inequitable systems of power. 

Carroll’s nonsense world challenged deeply rooted Victorian orthodoxy by using size to create changes in perceived importance. 

Carroll depicts not just changes in size for Alice, but the affect that it has on her psyche. As she is problem solving, trying to reach the key on the table, she eats too much cake and becomes giant, causing her fear and worry that is literally outsized, flooding the area with a sea of tears. Calming down, she continues to problem-solve, but makes herself so small that she gets washed away building a kind of empathy for the animals affected by her oversized human impact. 

When later stuck inside the Duchess’s house, she recognizes and uses the uses the destructive power of her human-ness to terrorize the residents of the Duchesses house until she finds a way to get her emotions under control.  

In Emerging Wonder, the transformation of each bug and flower into the next plays with scale. Sometimes a bee takes up the whole screen, while there is a tiny butterfly in the next image. In turn, projected at a ten foot screen, all of the bugs are larger than life, interacting with the swirl of puppets on the rotor created by participants, and audience members who stopped along the way to the nearby dance floor.  

It is always a pleasure to walk through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and even more of a pleasure to be able to collaborate with the community with an art project geared towards participation. By taking the frame of the caterpillar and other pollinator animals, this work creates space for participants to imagine a world where we prioritize our relationship with nature. Visitors to FOOL Moon, hosted throughout downtown Ann Arbor, contributed their own shadow puppets to the installation in the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.

I love making participatory art because my “audience” always teaches me something, and in this case, I loved watching the bugs, pets, objects, and designs emerge from the many families who stopped to create at the table. Some had luminaries, and many were dressed up with layered coats, as Michigan spring often demands. I myself was dressed as a flower garden with my Marimekko coat, purple flowered dress, and pink floral socks.  

Although it died down by evening, the wind on Friday around lunchtime was so strong that we only installed the projection screen and simplified the installation. The projector loaned to me by the Ann Arbor District Library was so much brighter than my own that it lit up the large silver rotor made of aluminum window screen. Even without curtains, it created layers of color and functioned both as the engine for the shadow ballet and a second, brilliant screen. 

In gaps between noises from the disco floor in the middle of the market, and my neighbors, the flute invited people who hadn’t yet made puppets to watch and created a performance space for each round of new puppets that added to the menagerie. The diameter of the rotor created the illusion of swirling around like on a dance floor, allowing the creatures and joys that people created to add to the story of butterflies, flowers, grasshoppers, bees, and caterpillars. 

Seeing things this size made me want to create an EVEN BIGGER projection.  Instead of ten feet wide, I want to make it fifty! Imagine 2” shadow puppets and 2cm bugs showing up on a screen bigger than people. That would really draw you into the dream of the world we live in. 

Social Distance Drawing

Doodling is a great way to get things off of your mind, and right now, there are a lot of things on everyone’s minds. In order to doodle with my friends and others, here is a site to doodle together. My plan is to be there around 6pm EDT for the next several days.

In a truly surreal situation, sometimes the best outlet is to follow the footsteps of the Surrealists.

Known participants on March 18: Christine Bruxvoort, Vanessa Chung, and Yaquelin Perez from various parts of the United States.

I’ve set up an instagram feed to track our collaborative drawings, and I am working on creating an exquisite corpse project that we can do digitally. Stay tuned!

[instagram-feed user=”collaborativedrawing”]

Brecht, Aelita, and other Inspirations

Natella Abashwili in the CourtroomOne of my other recent projects was at the same school where we did Charlie Brown, but with the “Upper School” students (Grades 9-12). It was the play by Bertholt Brecht, The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It takes place in the Caucuses region in what is present day Georgia. It is not about “white” people, though if one did it as a period piece, set in the 1940’s and the 1920’s, I suppose people in that part of Western Asia are white.

The play is a parable based somewhat upon Solomon’s Judgement, but also focusing on the political situations in Russia and Germany at the time. That is, the Historical framework upon which the play sits is that of the Bolshevik Revolution in the late 1910’s, the ensuing chaos, and political drama.

The director, Emily Wilson-Tobin chose to use the current influence of The Hunger Games as a lens to help the students relate to the sideways angles of Brechtian drama, and make the underlying unfamiliar history relatable. The costumes in The Hunger Games, by Judianna Madkovsky have crazy lines, beautiful high-end construction, and a finish that in 9 weeks with 2 plays going at once weren’t going to be possible.

Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow

To solve this quandary from the beginning, we planned to use non-traditional materials which don’t need to be hemmed, can be glued rather than sewn, and theoretically are cheaper than fabrics, since many of them can be got for free. For example, the Balloon Dress above, or the wild pink-ribboned farthingale.

The Balloon Dress was actually one of the more expensive pieces because it went through several iterations and in order to allow the actress practice time with it, we had to re-inflate and add balloons at a few points. We made it modular rather than all taped together so that this would be possible.

[cincopa AwCAld76z_h_]

First, looking at the costumes in The Hunger Games, I realized there was some relationship to the costumes in Fritz Lang movies, and in a Russian Film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, a film which drew my gaze while browsing in Paris at a DVD shop because it holds my namesake, and held my attention because it had such wonderful sets and costumes.  It is a silent film, made in 1923.

So in the costumes for Greenhills’ production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, as well as the set, we were most influenced by Russian and German Avant-Garde Cinema and Constructivist painting between the Wars than by the real clothes people in the region would have worn.

It was fun to work with students, and many of them helped with the design process, or just came to help out a little here and there. They learned a little about how we would do things in a larger scale professional production, about how to make design choices, and how some things are good on paper but less so on the proverbial boards.

For those who were interested, I also talked a little about my own family’s history and experiences at that time in Karelia, on the other side of Russia; the social connotations of dress and how to manipulate the audience’s perceptions; and how the history and social connotations of clothing and fashion are still present today, though in a different form.

Director: Emily Wilson-Tobin

Music Director and Composer: Benjamin Cohen

Tech Director: Laura Bird with assistance from Tim Ebeling

Assistant Costumers: Sarah Ceccio, Luena Maillard

Assistant Makeup Designer: Cat Bonner

(All Photos except Natella Abashwili and her Towering Shadow, are by Gabe Linderman, Greenhills student)