The Dream Vision of Philippe Genty

This week I started searching for the work of Felix Mirbt (one of the founders of puppet theatre in Quebec and Canada)—but I got ambushed by Phiippe Genty. He’s one of the greats, at eighty-one still working with his company in France, where he combines dance, pantomime, object theatre, puppetry, music and light to explore the human predicament in a meaningless universe.

Genty is huge in his imaginative reach and his work spans decades. That means that he changes, and some of the early work is unrecognizable—for example, a six-minute cabaret piece that offers the ultimate version of one of puppetry’s deepest and most universal tropes: the puppet as existential prisoner of his strings. That piece alone deserves a separate post—another time.

Instead, I’ll start with a four-minute excerpt from Jim Henson’s otherwise unavailable program on Genty. It begins with a rehearsal for a show, featuring flamingos dancing to perky, familiar ballet music (the gruesome Tchaikovsky). Then it switches seamlessly to the black light performance. The music never lets up as the birds dance, and the third has a series of comic mishaps—falling out of rhythm, losing first one leg and then the other. Then one bird lays an egg, and the hapless third bird laughs. She’s punished: she lays a white cube. And all the while the dance music goes on, a relentlessly pretty contrast to the silly birds and their succession of comic moments. Toward at the end, while the performance is still running, we hear Henson in a voice-over, posing his intelligent questions, which yield Genty’s insights into black light and tempo. It’s the place to start, even if, given the dreamscapes of Genty’s later work, it’s no longer typical.

This next extract is contemporary: a bit more than six minutes from his huge, ninety-minute production, Land’s End. It shows its mime-heavy opening, which introduces the key objects of the piece—a piece of paper, a hand, a suitcase, a manikan, a hat, a pencil. Objects in Genty have greater reality than humans, a metaphysical proposition that is the basis of true object theatre. In these six minutes we also get some of the show’s funniest and most outrageous routines, especially the satiric play on modern sexuality, with baby-headed, over-sized puppets showing each other their genitals to the accompanyment of rock music. A snake emerges from the guy’s pants, and then, in a brilliant transformation, the girl’s legs become a pair of scissor blades, and what she does to that snake is all too predictable. Like comics, puppets can do stuff that we wouldn’t dare show otherwise

Those are tasters. I’ll offer two more videos for the serious student. The first is L’attrape des rêves, a half hour documentary on Genty and his spouse/collaborator, Mary Underwood, showing them at work with their company, creating Land’s End.

It’s mostly in French, so if you don’t understand the language you’re handicapped. That said, I think it’s still worth watching because so much is visual, and we—I—learn so much just observing how he directs, how his performers handle amazing puppets (I keep returning to the spikey insect with the big human cock and human face). The last six minutes are wordless: just a series of moments backstage during a performance, showing actors and technicians as they create the illusions that dazzle us when we’re on the other side of the lights. As artists, this is what we want to see.

Here’s the other wonderful thing about this documentary. Not only do we see Genty and his “comédiens” in action. We also understand the importance of dreams in his art. He talks about his childhood traumas, and how, with therapy, he connected with his dreams; how dreams, transformed into images on the stage, liberate the spectator; how the images hang in our memory after the show; how because of these dream-like images, his show is a personal voyage for each of us, in our different ways. An image, he says, is “interesting” (a stronger word in French than in English) to the degree that it permits us to avoid “le grand super-marché des clichés”—the great supermarket of clichés. I like that

And finally, if you’re totally keen: the entire Land’s End, all ninety minutes of it. The show’s length is a problem. It’s brilliant in its parts, but frankly wearying if you have to sit through the entirety. That said, it remains a reference point, and some of those sequences—especially the wedding scenes, in which everyone, male and female alike, put on white wedding dresses, along with that spikey sex insect—are great. And the final sequences, in which performers walk out into a kind of luminous, billowing sea, are at the same time magical and profoundly ironic. The sea is plastic.