This weekend the University Musical Society will captivate audiences at the Power Center with three performances of Tall Horse, a theatrical blend of puppets, dancers, music and more.

“Tall Horse” is based on the real life events of one very influential giraffe. Taken from her home in Sudan, the giraffe was given as a gift to King Charles X of France from the Viceroy of Egypt in order to ensure an alliance between the two nations. Upon arriving in Marseilles, the French are enamored with the graceful creature; her presence alone causes a national commotion for all things African. Audience members follow the giraffe and her handler, Atir, en route to Paris while they discover the chic culture of France together.

Created through a collaboration of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company and the Sologon Puppet Troupe of Mali, the production incorporates two distinctly different styles of puppet theater, Handspring’s contemporary storytelling and sinuous puppets combined with the Sologon’s Bambara puppetry of Mali.

Handspring’s master puppet designer and maker, Adrian Kohler, elaborated on his personal designs. “For me, the movement of the figure is very important. The movement and the sculptural element are almost equal, but the sculptural element is not as important as what the figure does – If you simply have a static sculpture it doesn’t fit the dramatic requirements.” The mystical, eerily realistic movements of Kohler’s puppets when manipulated by the puppet masters help the audience bridge the gap between the live actors and the puppets.

The Sogolon Puppet Troupe’s figures are more traditional in appearance. Some forms of puppets are completely unique to the Bambara tradition: One is the Mailian castelet, which are antelope creatures made from flexible wood and covered in beautiful bright fabrics and grass skirts. They are dancing figures, given life by the performer inside. Another unique figure, the meren habitable, is, as Kohler explained, “inhabited puppets – Kind of backpack on which the head of a figure rests on the manipulator’s (head).” The arms of the figure are then manipulated by long arm rods from inside the puppet.

The giraffe figure is by far the most impressive puppet in the show. Standing five meters tall, the creature shares legs with two men on stilts manipulating it from underneath a thin body covering. “When I was making it, I was very nervous,” Kohler said. “It is the first stilt puppet I have made – and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to kill the people inside because they were strapped together. If one stumbled and needed to correct, would that pull the other person down with them?” The giraffe’s neck has an amazing range of motion; when Atir gives the command, it actually swings. “The movement of the neck was the next big hurdle because any head on the end of a two-meter neck becomes very heavy. So the person in the front has to be very good at balance,” Kohler said.

Although the story of Tall Horse may be told with puppets, viewers shouldn’t mistake the performance for a children’s show. Several risque references are made throughout the show concerning race and sexuality, and the social and political issues are better suited for mature audiences. “It’s considered an adult piece,” Kohler said, “but there is enough humor and spectacle in it for the adult bracket to be widen downwards.”

 

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