Friday, April 3, 2009

Panther & Crane

Last night I attended the performance of Ibex puppetry's Panther and Crane and it's not your ordinary puppet show. When I was a kid, puppet shows meant felt-decorated socks on hands performed in little booths. This performance was closer to Cirque du Soleil than Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Much of the performance is dancing and stylized movement. And there is no booth to hide behind, so you see the puppeteers ala Avenue Q. And this particular show offered no verbal narrative, so it required careful attention to follow the story. The performance is described in the program like this: "Panther & Crane is an expressionistic journey through Florida's ecosystem. We use dynamic puppets, colored light, projections and movement to create a world of mythic imagery and dreamlike metaphor. Our subjects are migrating cranes, alligators in the glade, the human pulse and wildly fluctuating weather. The elements dance together and ultimately collide with Florida's accelerating urban sprawl."

It is pretty amazing to see how they pull it all together. There is a screen for catching the performers shadows and showing animation. The participants not only have to be talented puppeters but dancers too. It is all about creating beautiful, colorful movement to the soundtrack of the Everglades.

The story is about a young Whooping Crane whose mother is electrified on power lines. Human encroachment into the serene environment of the swamp is abrupt and invasive, symbolized by a remote control Hummer and brightly lit construction vehicles (Tonka trucks) held by robot-like puppeters. The only positive human presence are the scientists in white jump suits who step in to help the baby crane find its way by mimicking an adult bird. The other animal characters in the story include a Mangy Panther, an Ancient Alligator and a Catfish.

The park in front of the History Center in downtown Orlando known as Heritage Square served as the perfect setting for this visual feast. Ibex, Heather Henson's local puppet troupe, placed a gigantic inflatable alligator in front of the History Center, complimenting the building banners advertsing the exhibition of her father's work. The permanent alligator statues already in the park fit right into the story, and emergency vehicles with sirens blarring rushed by as if right on cue.

While I wasn't always sure what was going on symbolically, it was an amazing symphony of music, movement and color. The performers jump seamlessly from modern dance to manipulating giant kites on poles to animating fascinating puppets. And I really loved the environmentalist theme of the story. It reminds me of a 21st century version of Joy Postle's "Glamour Birds" performance piece utilizing all the resources available in this technological age. I had really wanted to catch a glimpse of some Whooping Cranes in the wild this winter and fell short, only seeing a couple in capitivity at Homosassa Springs. Perhaps this will hold me over until next Winter!

Joy Postle image from Special Collections and University Archives, University of Central Florida

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