The Walker Art Center’s presentation of Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM’s Dark Matters opens a season-long showcase of puppetry in the performing arts. Minnesotans don’t need to be convinced that there’s a place for puppetry in adventurous theater—the moving spectacles at In the Heart of the Beast are family favorites, and Michael Sommers’s puppetry at Open Eye Figure Theatre is some of the darkest, most bracing theater to be seen anywhere in the area. In this context, Dark Matters is actually less dark, and much more accessible, than you might expect.
Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM is a Frankfurt-based company (that might seem obvious, but when it comes to contemporary dance, you can’t assume anything) directed by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. Dark Matters involves puppetry on many levels, from the literal manipulation of a puppet to the puppet-like manipulation of human dancers both manually and by suggestion, in the service of a theme about man’s insignificant place in the universe. Pike and her dancers (the choreographer makes an onstage cameo, which seems to be faddish of late in contemporary dance but is integral to the theme of this piece) demonstrate frighteningly strong technique, moving in tight unison and folding around each other in quick bursts of movement like human Transformers.
|dark matters, presented at the walker art center through october 16. for tickets ($18-$25) and information, see walkerart.org. (spoiler alert: the video trailer, if you choose to watch it, gives some of the show’s best surprises away.)
The first 30 minutes of Dark Matters are sensational. On a beautifully ominous set by Jay Gower Taylor, in episodes of movement set to the unapologetically theatrical whomps of Owen Belton’s original score, a man creates a puppet that at first delights him but then develops a mind of its own. In a startling series of developments, the scene turns violent and the entire set comes alive with menace. It’s a wowzer of an opening, and the Thursday night audience applauded wildly. Where do you go from there?
As it turned out, a little bit of everywhere. The remainder of the first act was taken up with the Ringo-like wanderings of a black-clad puppeteer, and most of the second act highlighted puppet-like ensemble work by company members clad in generically colorful shirts and pants. At the show’s conclusion, the original puppet-maker character reappears for a tender Pieta duet with Pite, set to Eric Whitacre’s choral song “Sleep.”
There’s something for everyone in Dark Matters: rich themes and a Voltaire text for the brainiacs, inventive choreography and world-class performance for the dance geeks, cool puppetry for the puppet people, visual tricks and shadowplay for the people who are into visual tricks and shadowplay, and even a generous helping of straightforward narrative for the little old lady from Dubuque, with a nice hymn and a hug for, as my mom would say, “a good ending.” It’s one of those pieces that will be in some measure enjoyed by anyone who even comes close to imagining they might enjoy it.
That said, I was left with a sense of missed possibility. Pite has a rich arsenal of tools and themes at her disposal, and they could have been used to create a very powerful piece. Pike uses narrative, music, and text sincerely rather than in ironic critique, but Dark Matters frustratingly fragments rather than making full use of those tools. If you’re going to frost the cupcake, frost the damn cupcake.
The use of adventurous techniques to confound expectations and extend—rather than critique—dramatic conventions is a rare achievement, and when done well it yields the kind of artistic creations that make you glad to live in a world where such things can be brought into being. In film, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman can do it. In theater, Savannah Reich and Samantha Johns pull it off. In dance, Mad King Thomas turn the trick neatly. (I’d like to see them try to pull that quote for their grant proposals.) If Pite had hung on to her narrative thread more tightly, allowing the story rather than merely the themes to carry us across intermission, she would have had us sitting forward in fascination rather than sitting back in admiration.