Is that Little Puppet Actually Playing Chopin?

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chopin marionette
Chopin puppet by Joanna Braun. Photo by Filip Lupa.

The piece is a theatrical reflection on the life and work of the world’s greatest composer for the piano, performed in perfect synchrony by prominent pianists from Poland and by marionettes representing the composer and historical figures who surrounded him. The pianist marionette measures about a foot tall and seems to master the keyboard with the agility and genius of Chopin. This takes expert marionette technique, unusual mechanical design and skill. The famed composer’s unique, light-handed keyboard technique is actually captured, artistically, by a wooden puppet on strings. In preparation for this feat, the puppeteers trained for weeks watching a pianist’s hands.The play takes the audience into Chopin’s world through a series of Muses, played by five actress-puppeteers, who serve as guides through the worlds of dreams and sounds produced by his music. With narration that would be described as economical, even minimalist, and with silent manipulation of the marionette cast accompanied by selections from Chopin’s works, they enact his artistic friendships, musical impressions, and life experiences. These include his fascination with Paganini, his friendships and relationships with George Sand and with his fiancee Maria Wodzinska, his longings for the lost “country of his childhood,” his creative dilemmas, artistic visions, and moods that ranged from the joy of success to the pain of despair, from the poetic to the paranoid.

Reviewing the original production, Poland’s Kurier Poranny (Anna Kopeae) applauded the phenomenal craft of this production, writing “Absolutely every detail has been worked out. The puppet’s fingers move precisely in the rhythm of the mazurkas, nocturnes and waltzes as played by Trzaskowski. At a certain moment, the audience stops paying attention to the puppeteers. It is just as if the marionette were moving completely by itself.”

In the first week, the pianist will be Krzysztof Trzaskowski (b. 1987), a native of Bialystok and graduate of the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, who has performed widely in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Trzaskowski advanced to the second stage of the the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2005, winning the prize of the Chopin Society of Geneva in that year. He was the youngest pianist from the European Union and Switzerland to reach this stage in the competition. In the second and third weeks, Karina Komendera will be at the piano. She is another emerging young Polish pianist who has appeared widely in Europe and is now in her fourth year of study at Bialystok Music University.

The Bialystok Puppet Theatre is one of the leading puppet theaters in Europe and one of the oldest Polish theater companies to cultivate a puppet repertoire for adults. Since 1972, it has regularly produced works by such authors as Boccaccio, Calderon, Rostand, Gogol, Bernhard, Rozewicz, and Mrozek.

The production is directed by Leslaw Piecka. The playscript is written by Leslaw Piecka and Wojciech Szelachowski. Set and puppets are designed by Joanna Braun. Choreography is by Jolanta Kruszewska. All the music is by Fryderyk Chopin.

The music of Chopin is considered one of Poland’s greatest gifts to world culture. Arthur Rubinstein has written, “Chopin was a genius of universal appeal. His music conquers the most diverse audiences. When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall there is a happy sigh of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it. They are moved by it. Yet it is not ‘Romantic music’ in the Byronic sense. It does not tell stories or paint pictures. It is expressive and personal, but still a pure art. Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people!”

Director Leslaw Piecka graduated in 1976 from Puppetry School in Wroclaw and has worked for theatres in Bielsko-Biala and Bialystok. From 1979 to 1991, he managed the Marionette Stage at Warsaw Chamber Opera. He has been a professor at the Bialystok Theatre Academy teaching marionette classes. He runs marionette workshops abroad and occasionally directs plays.

“Chopin-An Impression” is presented by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York. Additional support comes from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, The Jim Henson Foundation, and The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.

The La MaMa Puppet Series is now an annual event, curated by Denise Greber. It carries on La MaMa’s tradition, since its inception, of supporting puppet theater artists from all over the world. The series will open with the latest work by Italy’s Dario D’Ambrosi (Pathological Theater), “Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads,” from October 14 thru October 30. “Broken Nails: A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue” by Anna Skubik from Wroclaw, Poland will be presented in association with The Polish Cultural Institute in New York from November 11 to 21. From Brooklyn comes “Wake Up, You’re Dead,” directed and designed by Aaron Haskell, October 29 to November 7. A family and children’s puppet theater attraction, “Folktales of Asia and Africa,” will be performed by Jane Catherine Shaw October 16 to November 7. The festival will conclude with “In Retrospect” by LOCO7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company, directed, choreographed and designed by Colombia-born Federico Restrepo with music composed by Elizabeth Swados, November 12 to 28.

There will be Gallery Exhibit at La MaMa’s La Galleria, 6 East First Street, with puppets displayed from artists of the series, from October 21 to November 7. La MaMa will have its fall gala October 25, celebrating its 49th season by honoring Cheryl Henson of the Jim Henson Foundation. The “La MaMa Puppet Series IV–Built to Perform” is supported by the Jim Henson Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, NYSCA and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Chopin-An Impression” will have its American premiere run October 21 through November 7, 2010 at La MaMa E.T.C. (Ellen Stewart Theater at The Annex), presented by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with The Polish Cultural Institute in New York. Performances are Thursdays through Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:30. Tickets are $25. For further info and ticketing to all events of this festival, visit www.lamama.org. Discount tickets are available to members of nypuppets.org; membership is free.