Straw Into Gold

The universe of puppetry is more vast than the human imagination. That’s why its images hold such power: they reach into the unconscious, the unknown and unknowable zone beyond words—the empty space before the play begins, when anything can emerge from darkness; what the ancient Greeks called the apeiron, the unbounded.

The German artist, Ilka Schonebein, unites expressionist dance, sculpture, music, mask and image, along with her own riveting presence as a performer, in a savage and tender puppet theatre that continually crosses the boundaries between the material world that we think we know, and something “other”, a place of archetypes and dreams. And mostly the dreams are nightmares.

I saw her most recent show in Charleville in September, 2018. It’s a retelling of the Rumplestilskin story, to which she gives a depth that no one else has probed. In the familiar story, the “little man” demands the queen’s baby as the price of the service he has done for her by spinning straw into gold.

Something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world, he tells her.

“Those are the two essential phrases in the fairy tale,” Schonebein says. “Between them unfolds the whole story.”

There are two female performers, one of whom, sometimes wearing the nose of a donkey, plays musical instruments, sings, provides commentary and does other business. The puppeteer is stationary, mostly sitting – although at the climactic moments she stands on a small elevated circular stage accessed by a few steps. She uses a couple of masks to play the king and later, the queen; she raises her long black skirt to reveal that her right leg, with a face at the knee, is, in puppet magic, a sly courtier, murmuring flattering mischief into the king’s ear. I have a daughter, he says, who can spin straw into gold. And since the king loves money more than sex or anything else he agrees to meet her. The puppeteer smears lipstick all over her face, and becomes the girl, eager to enchant the king; and then, locked in her room, her hands become Rumpelstiltskin: one transforms into a set of golden spider-like claws, while the other fist is a golden reptilian head with a pincer-like mouth.

Oh, the things she does with that mere hand puppet: how twisted and coaxing and implacable it is, as the chanter tells the story and mimics his voice (the puppeteer is silent). In the big scene where he demands her child, her two arms twist around each other like a coiling snake. There’s a power in the contrast between the potent stillness of the stationary puppeteer, and the roving, donkey-nosed performer – who is like the “Interpreter” of Elizabethan “motions” or like Bruno Leone, roving beyond the puppet booth and engaging the audience with varied voices and crazy, atonal nonsense songs.

Commenting on the show, Schonebein compares the task of transforming straw into gold with the work of the “true artist”, which never ends, since “after creation is always before the creation.”

“Is there a life after puppets?” she asks. “I’ve been searching for it, this life without puppets, and I still search for it—so I can live, survive. Something alive is dearer to me than all the puppets in the world.”

Here are three amazing, and deeply troubling, samples of her work:

Secondly, a four minute excerpt from her version of Schubert’s Winterrese:

And finally, two brief dances from her Metamorphosen in which she explores loneliness and vulnerability with deep tenderness:

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