Office Hours: Fantasque
Victoria Anderson, Amy Trompetter, and John Heginbotham
Victoria Anderson is a Senior Language Lecturer at New York University’s College of Arts and Science. Her current interests lay in developing pedagogy for students in dance studies and expository writing that values close reading, critical thinking, and reflection.
Amy Trompetter creates giant puppet operas, outdoor pageants and hand puppet shows. Her critically-acclaimed production of The Barber of Seville exposed and transgressed scripted content and operatic form. Her Punch & Judy just persuaded Brazilians to host an all-women’s hand puppet festival next year. She collaborates in prisons, brings puppetry to street actions and neighborhood centers upstate, and is the founder of Redwing Blackbird Theater, a puppet workshop and performing space in Rosendale, NY.
John Heginbotham, a former member of Mark Morris Dance Group, founded Dance Heginbotham in 2011. The company has been presented and commissioned by prestigious venues including Bard College, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Jacob’s Pillow, The Kennedy Center and The Joyce Theater, and has toured extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Heginbotham is the recipient of a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2014 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award.
VICTORIA ANDERSON: Hello. Welcome to Office Hours. John Heginbotham and Amy Trompetter, the choreographers of this beautiful performance that I just witnessed with my children called “Fantastique.” Why don’t you tell us…
JOHN HEGINBOTHAM: I’m already gonna say…
JH: It’s actually called “Fantasque.”
VA: Oh really?
JH: Yes I understand, I understand…
VA: Oh “Fantasque.”
JH: But that’s a great way to actually start the conversation.
VA: Yeah so fantastic. Tell me, tell us who you are quickly because we’re supposed to introduce ourselves to the world. And then I want to start with the title. That’s a beautiful beginning.
JH: My name is John Heginbotham. I am the choreographer/director of Dance Heginbotham, a six-year-old company. I am a Juilliard graduate. I went to school with you, Dr. Anderson, and I’m living a good life. I’m having a great time and I collaborated with Amy Trompetter on this show “Fantasque.”
VA: All right, beautiful. And you were a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Company for many years.
JH: Yes I was, and I’m gonna say it’s the Mark Morris Dance Group.
VA: Oh my gosh! What is wrong with me? I don’t get out enough. Oh my goodness…okay… Whose office hours are these? No, I’m just kidding, so could you just introduce yourself?
AMY TROMPETTER: My name is Amy Trompetter. I started working with puppets in the 60s. When I met Bread and Puppet Theatre, that—it’s activist outdoor giant puppet theatre—really drew me in. And since that time I’ve done a lot of different things including hand puppets recently in Brazil, teaching a world theatre to kind of find the grandparents of Bread and Puppet way way back in primitive theatre, a necessity of community and problem solving. And then also, sometimes theatre that’s being produced. Like I did a “Barber of Seville” with Saint Anne’s that worked, but I don’t always come to what I would call professional theater, which, John, I’d say is working in. So this collaboration fell to me when I was doing something at Bard. They needed someone and I said yes. I went into the rehearsal room with puppets and every puppet I threw at John, he just accepted it. And I thought “Wow. Pretty good team.”
JH: Amy, you know, I will say, you’re a great artist and what was very very clear upon our meeting and visiting actually your Museum is just how detailed and thoughtful your designs are. And that is before I had seen any of your work, I mean, theatrically speaking. I had just seen the puppets in a still way and they were just so impressive.
VA: They are. And one thing that’s so interesting that I found my children responded to and the whole audience responded to was that you can see how they are constructed. There isn’t an illusion about that. There are bodies behind them. So much of the illusion is sort of taken away. But because of that, because you can see the architecture…like for example there’s one point in the show when the things are lowered to raise things up. It’s clear that they are there but that doesn’t take away from the magic. So I just wanted to ask both of you how you thought about or do you make conscious decisions about “we’re going to show these mechanics of the puppets”? And then things that you want to be somewhat magical or knowing from your experience what will read and what will be seen. Because there’s this wonderful tension between the fact that I can see exactly how it operates. Like someone, this little child yelled out when the chair went. One kid went “oh my goodness” and the other child said “it was a string.” But that doesn’t make it not magical. So I was just wondering if you have discussions about that as you were going along or different ideas about that?
AT: I’ll say a short answer then a longer one I’ll come back to. But I think the suspension of disbelief is the audience pact with the performers from the beginning because we all know. So that’s the good faith. We all want to believe in this. It’s a willing suspension of disbelief and grownups and kids going to that point in a room is really wonderful. Like this was great mixed age invitation do that. And then we’re a low tech; we’re not high…we’re not going to budget what it takes to do some of that. Or we prefer also that the performer and the puppet are both present in the action. Though I don’t like to show the operator and I’d say John is more into, as a dancer and choreographer, showing the operators. So there’s a little tension. Where I may say “I wouldn’t have done it that way” but I’ll step back while you do this and you know we’ll see where the chips fall. So we didn’t plan it out but I think we collaborated in rehearsal towards something.
VA: Well, the experience in the audience is that it sort of moves very fluidly between those two things. So that’s a good tension I think at least for my point of view and my kids.
JH: We created this piece two years ago for Bard College, Bard SummerScape and in revisiting it for Skirball that topic came up just a couple of weeks ago. We were sort of redesigning the introduction of the piece which is really you know it’s a prelude. And it’s just sort of “here are some of the people and some of the objects the architecture that you’re gonna see on stage” and we had a conversation before we sort of attempted some stuff that we involved two puppets in that introduction, the two who we call the rascals who were sort of in these black…
VA: Oh my god! Those were such a hit today.
JH: Really beautiful, with the neckties, and I know that there was an idea that maybe it’s not such a good idea to just show the puppet without it being animated. We tried it out and I guess I would be curious to know, what was it about the sort of experiment of that that you felt like it was okay for us to do that?
AT: My first impulse was, “Wait, the puppeteer should be in the puppet,” I’m sitting out, you go ahead and design this, what’s in your mind, and I’m just taking a back burner position here. But when the objects came across and the puppet was carried like an object pretty much but then a little bit operated but I mean the scene was brilliant so I find.
VA: Yeah, yeah interesting, so with this kind of collaboration cross-genre it just sounds like there’s so much communication that has to go on. It sounds like you guys had a collaboration of a lot of deep listening to one another and just being…
VA: …open. What was the desperation part?
AT: Oh sometimes things don’t work the night before the opening. Two scenes are totally out of whack. The piece is not something I can even accept on a subway ride home.
VA: Oh boy yeah this is the part that the audience doesn’t know about, of course. But there’s that dress rehearsal and, as you said in the little after talk, two weeks to put this together.
AT: Was it two weeks?
VA: You knew you’d revisit it but two years is quite a long time.
AT: And there are a lot of changes.
JH: We made major changes.
VA: Wow I can’t even imagine the stress of that. And in the art world, I was a professional dancer for many years, I mean the compression is so intense.
AT: It’s wrong too in America because there’s not budget. Else we would work ages if we had budget.
VA: Space. It’s all about finding space to rehearse.
AT: To be able to pay people and like in the old system you take one or two years in a European theater to make a play with the mock-up of the set before you even build it. You would just design on paper. It’s totally driven by this unhealthy economy where we’re worthless in a sense, right? We’re not a product.
VA: Yeah and especially when so much that’s going on is going on on the internet. And live performance just you know for children growing up right now, like they’re having access to so much entertainment. In that way what you’re offering is so valuable. So it’s like worthless in some kind of capitalistic framework but like the value is so there. You saw it today. The children are just and the parents too. It’s not just the kids but they’re just like rushing up onto the stage and still believing in the liveness of the characters even though they can see them behind. So I know what it feels like to be frustrated by the system…
AT: And just do it anyway.
VA: And just do it anyway.
AT: And that engagement is so redeeming for each human being. I mean you have it when you’re born. You have it for a while. You can lose it or get it back. But when you’re there, you know you’re in the right place in relation to yourself and the rest of the people who are living on the earth are included in that. There’s incredible wholesomeness in those actions of creating and presenting.
VA: There’s something about the media of puppetry and the media of dance that are just like, they just really come together. What was it like for the dancers and the puppeteers going back and forth with one another? What do you think they learned from one another?
AT: One, they loved each other. When they re-meet it’s like cousins at a family reunion who hadn’t seen each other for two years. They were just in each other’s arms.
JH: And I would even say we have two new dancers for this round of “Fantasque.” And I feel like they were welcomed in with the same warmth of the people who already knew each other which I felt spoke well of the family of the cast.
VA: One of the other experiences I had watching it was enjoying the different physicalities of seeing dancers and puppeteers kind of just melding together. You know what I mean? Seeing their sort of different expertise and that cross-fertilization was really satisfying to watch. And then there was another surprise which was terrific. One of the big surprises was in the interlude that the wonderful pianist and I’m sorry I can’t remember his name….
JH: George Shevtsov.
VA: Yeah, thank you. He just gets up and—I don’t want to give a spoiler alert although this is, it’s okay—and suddenly moves into a flamenco situation which was such a wonderful magical surprise. He has the Duende by the way which is the magical flamenco x-factor. He totally had the Duende.
JH: You know what you should tell him that. I think he needs a little boost.
VA: Oh my gosh! That was a wonderful high point. How did that come about?
AT: John, you pulled that out of a hat. You knew he could do it.
JH: Yes, he already came with that. It wasn’t like we had designed the piece and said “Where can we find a pianist who is an expert flamenco dancer?” What happened is that we were originally going to do this piece with an orchestra, okay? Because the title “Fantasque” comes from the Ballet Russe ballet “La Boutique Fantasque” which means the magic toy shop. There was an idea that we were going to play the score for that ballet, that it would be with the live orchestra. When that opportunity or when that option became not available, we were faced with how will we… will we have recorded music? What are we gonna do? Is there a chamber version? What we learned is that the root of the music for the orchestra “La Boutique Fantasque” are these weird, obscure, solo piano pieces by Rossini.
VA: They are beautiful.
JH: So we went to the source and took some of the source material from the ballet itself and then a couple of other things that Rossini had written in the same vein and made that our score. So we knew it was solo piano. George is somebody that I’ve worked with several times before. He’s a great talent and he just seemed like the right person. Then as we were creating we realized that because… I mean, Amy, you essentially sort of devised the plot of the show based on myth, different global myths. We knew that there needed to be a casting away of our protagonist, this little baby, and we were just considering how we might do that. I felt like we needed a break. That what had come before and what was about to happen… We needed something to have time away from the primary plot. And I knew George was a flamenco dancer. It was like how insane would that be if suddenly this gentleman, who has been sort of supporting the show in this musical way, just stood up and threw down some serious moves.
VA: Some Duende. It’s hard because when you have live music, and it’s not an orchestra, it’s always a problem. Where do they go on the stage? They become sort of props on the side. And the way he was moved into the performance really felt like he was part of it. There was some other interaction that happened with him which was great too. So that was a wonderful digression.
JH: Well, but it’s very particular to him. If we were faced with doing the show and George wasn’t available, we would have to…well I think the show could happen, but we would have to base it on whatever the particular abilities would be of a different performer.
VA: Well, it’s such a wonderfully intelligent move, because the audience can feel the kind of appreciation of all of the skills of everyone in the room. Do you know what I mean? That they’ve not been sort of slotted off into typical roles.
JH: Right. Everybody has sort of equal value in terms of what they’re contributing.
VA: Yes, and along with the suspension and the suspension of disbelief, there’s just flat-out surprise, which is just wonderful. The other really interesting surprise was the dancer who played the devil just comes with the accordion.
JH: Greg Corbino.
VA: And at the very end, you think the show’s over but the ending has like it’s like an after aura. And it really really works. I bet tonight it’s gonna be BOOM BOOM, you know? It’s just like the afternoon crowds are always a little like… I don’t know…
AT: Foot in the water, testing the temperature.
VA: Maybe slightly hesitant. Although in down in my section we were talking and verbally responding. I don’t know if the dancers can hear it. But did you hear us hissing at the devil?
JH: Oh yes, oh my goodness! It was wonderful.
VA: Yeah that was great. But I think tonight you’re gonna get… I can feel some accordion love is gonna happen tonight. It’s a great way to end. Did you want to say something about the ending?
JH: Just that you are the person who sort of brought that element in. I didn’t know about Greg.
AT: Yeah he’s a great performer, who joined Bread and Puppet Theatre as a brilliant, genius puppeteer. Then Bread and Puppet did an opera of Monteverdi’s “Ulysses” and suddenly Greg understood that he could be an opera singer as a late-in-life realization. He’s doing opera training as a side thing.
VA: Oh, his voice is wonderful.
AT: I know, I know.
VA: And, you know, it struck me that I was prepared the whole time that I was watching because the imagery is so lyrical. I thought someone’s gonna start singing any second. I don’t know if that’s a possibility for the future but it just felt like it was operatic in its scope. But at the same time, the language of movement and symbolism of the sets was also so powerful. It didn’t need it but they could start singing any minute or verbalizing.
JH: Well I was wondering because actually that performance is the first time that we have included the encore in this round of the show, I mean. And in our previous version there used to be a section which was that piece of music not sung, okay? But we edited that out of this version and I was kind of wondering like it made sense in the old one, because it was a reprieve, it was a different hearing, a different performing of what we had already heard earlier in the piece. But now it’s just a standalone by itself. There’s no context for that song other than Rossini which is maybe a good enough context. But it’s kind of actually great to hear your reaction to that, because I kind of found myself wondering like, “Should we have this encore?” Then it’s just that he’s so charismatic and such a great performer that I found myself feeling like, “Well, I think you should do it but is it just because I have warm feelings?”
AT: It’s something with the audience. There’s a bridge that is built even more so…
VA: It has that feeling of being at a festival, being more in a kind of like outdoor situation where kind of like anything… Okay now he’s gonna come out; he’s just gonna sing a song.
AT: Yeah and you own it, we all own it together.
VA: And also I think we never see other performers we experience as different characters, I think, pretty much. You see them in different ways and the devil, you never see him and he’s such a big…
JH: Right, you don’t see his face.
AT: Yeah, that’s nice.
VA: …such a big piece of it. And, you know, my kids are a little bit older but I think for—and they weren’t like scared—but I think for the younger ones it’s nice to see that…
AT: There’s a guy performing the devil…
VA: He’s an okay guy.
JH: He’s a benevolent man and by that point…
VA: The devil has dimension.
JH: He’s also at that point in the show he’s wearing like a flower costume. He’s dressed in like petals, isn’t he?
AT: Is he? Maybe not this show, maybe that was the other show.
JH: Wait a second, do you know what?
AT: I think he still has on his first.
JH: My god, you’re right, he’s not. In our previous show, he was dressed as a flower.
AT: And we had a different curtain call.
JH: And I have now assigned in my memory… I went back to that and I can see him standing on the Skirball stage wearing that tonight, today.
AT: Even though it didn’t happen.
JH: I’ve superimposed…wow.
VA: The mind is an amazing thing.
JH: That kinda scares me.
AT: It’s okay.
VA: That’s okay, that’s okay. Wow, you guys, this was stressful, huh? Getting to today was stressful?
AT: I mean I would say extremely.
VA: Oh wow, yeah, does it help to say that it was beautiful?
VA: And that the audience was like with you? And that children and adults alike were totally drawn in? I hope that you enjoy the rest of the runs and get to tweak it. I just had like one kind of more thing I want to talk about. I was reading some interviews with puppeteers. I was just reading some of the material around puppetry and someone was, I can’t remember who it was, talking about… they imagine the puppet as a kind of husk. It works because it’s a plastic form, that it’s kind of just an outer layer of the idea of a being. But when I saw this today I thought that it had such a different quality they weren’t, the puppets weren’t husks and emptied and so we can project whatever we want on them. They were more like portals for the performer inside to, like, let the character through. Do you know what I mean?
AT: I mean it’s good that it’s hard to define what a puppet is. That’s a redeeming thing. Also when you say this—I’m sure it comes from Bread and Puppet thinking that the puppet is in that moment, one moment, the moment that’s created in this one moment. It exists in that moment. You know its pure. It just exists in that moment. You can do different things with it but it’s that one, pure moment. And we humans have all of this multi layering, you know, complexity with this. But we were let’s say back to baby born, you know, in this one pure moment and the puppet is carrying it’s one pure moment. It’s so helpful to us as humans to relate to that being in it’s amoral, not immoral, or moral, but amoral purity of what it is. There’s a simplicity to life that evades us right now especially. I think our way back ancestors had a more immediate response, also a need for say a mask which evoked an ancestors, which evoked the universe, which humbled the being in their moment. And we don’t have that experience in our culture so that puppet is that for us, very simple and then very nuanced.
VA: Yeah it’s like it’s an outline but then it gets so filled so quickly and when you…
AT: And it is what it is. If we are to make it be something else, it doesn’t. And that’s one thing we find with making the show is the puppet tells us what the show is. And if we don’t listen, we’re gonna go on these wrong tracks: preconception, write the script… Forget it. Puppet. This is what it is. This is what we’re doing. So humility. Okay, that’s what the show is. Now I get it.
VA: From a choreographic standpoint, that must be very freeing. Because when you know so much, when you’ve worked with a master choreographer like Mark Morris, it must be overwhelming to make choreographic decisions. When you have such an archive in your body and in your mind. This idea of allowing an object to like lead you must be quite freeing. Or was it that experience for you or something else?
JH: Well I mean it certainly helped me in that it was an idea that has not been part, a big part of my experience which is helpful in sort of opening me to new ideas. But I would say in our collaboration I’m weaker with, I’m better with, “Let me design something in advance and things are gonna happen at this time and it’s gonna be consistent.” And I feel like your strength is better with, “This is gonna take the amount of time it’s gonna take and that’s gonna vary and the puppet is gonna spell that out for us.” So I feel like, also, one of the hopefully successful things in our collaboration and also one of the things where I think there is healthy tension is navigating that road of, “I need this puppet to be stage right quarter at this point in the music” and the response potentially being that puppet will not be able, will not necessarily get there at that time. Or it can get there at that time but it will be disobeying some of its structure, some of it’s puppet life which will compromise the strength of the situation.
AT: Yes, we experienced that last night.
JH: We sort of fixed it today, I think.
AT: It helped us reach where we’re at this point with pain.
JH: Oh yeah.
VA: There is always pain in terms of dance and live performance: blood, sweat, and tears. Literally blood on the studio floor, right?
VA: Quite literally. People don’t realize that, the blisters.
JH: It’s corporeal. It’s what’s happening. But you know what? I got scared last night after a dress rehearsal realizing how serious of some of the dilemmas are. I’m saying dilemma because this is Office Hours I would have said problem…
VA: You can also say, a big one is “problematize.” If you ever wanted to throw that out in a conference, it’s like a real showstopper.
JH: Well, we were problematized last night. And we shared a subway ride home where we talked about a lot of stuff. But one of the things that you said which, just, I was a little frightened of… I knew that something needed to change in the course of what we were about to present to a paying audience, or not even paying, just the public. And you said to me, “Well, you know, in Bread and Puppet we make big decisions. Like, we’re capable of making big decisions right before the show. It’s okay. If you want to change something big, you should maybe feel free to imagine you could.” And because of that conversation I do think we…
AT: Pulled it out of a hat.
JH: Yeah, we made some good improvements.
VA: And that quality of dance which needs to base itself in time with music and the dream of the puppets, I’m just realizing now thinking back on it, that tension is part of what is magical about you guys working together.
JH: They happen at different times. Puppet time and dance time are not necessarily the same.
VA: I loved how you sort of in your choreography, you paced the movement quality throughout. Like it started with this sort of very buttery movement that was very…
JH: There is actually a section that is called butter.
VA: Really? It’s a very yielding and buttery and then by the time we got to the “uh uh uh,” you know things were getting heated up and it really…
AT: Must have been the olives.
VA: There was just this one move I really want to learn because I need to do it in my kitchen.
JH: Yeah? What is it?
VA: I don’t know, the “uh uh uh.”
JH: Oh where they… the sort of disco move? The upside down disco move?
VA: Yeah, you gotta teach me that later. Yeah, and some of the cross layering of the musicality was beautiful, really beautiful.
JH: Well, part of that is allowing from my history of dance and with Mark Morris who was so musically aligned, the choreography is often, you know. One of the things that is fun for me to explore is how can dance exists with music in different ways. And so some of this process has also been about, “I don’t care when you do this or when you start it. You have to accomplish the entire dance phrase and you may have to go faster or slower depending on when you opt to start it. But I don’t care if you relate this in any way to what you’re hearing in a rhythmic or melodic way.” And that actually I think it’s a little more in line with puppet time and valuable for this collaboration.
AT: We also say there are three lines: like sound, it goes its own way; visual, it goes its independent way; text, it goes its independent way. And the stupidity of many movies is all three lines tell you the same thing. And we don’t need to be told the same thing by all three lines and our freedom…
VA: And in that space is where the audience can go in and we can fill in for that and we can…
AT: Your creative…
VA: Yeah, like, there’s like literally more blood rushing into your brain. It’s really lovely so you guys have another show to do…
JH: And many more changes. We’re changing everything.
VA: I think this idea of making big changes and imagining you can, it’s just a beautiful idea. And I’m gonna think about it all the way home. I’m working on a short story right now. I don’t know what’s going on with it; I gotta figure it out. The end is a problem. It’s a dilemma. It’s a problematised ending. But that’s a wonderful, thank you so much for that.
AT: You’re a really good interviewer.
VA: Oh this is my first time. I’ve never done this.
AT: You’re really good at this, you find the words.
VA: And I mean it’s all here, it’s all right here. So where can we find you next? For people who are watching this who are interested, where can we see either your collaboration next? Or do you have anything coming up that you want the world to know about?
AT: You go first.
JH: Okay, well, I’m a New York-based choreographer so this is where a lot of it happens. And the next thing that’s coming for me immediately is actually a “Peter and the Wolf” at the Guggenheim Museum. It’s narrated by Isaac Mizrahi and is a baletta sized version.
VA: That is wonderful. I have been waiting. I love that music. Are you using the original… Oh my gosh! Wonderful. Thank you.
JH: Come check it out.
VA: I’m totally gonna come check it out.
JH: Isaac is also the director and he has set it in New York City. So it takes place in Central Park.
AT: I saw it, it’s great.
VA: That’s wonderful.
JH: We’ve had a great time working on it, so that’s the next thing. It’ll be in December.
VA: Wonderful and for yourself?
AT: I worked on a Sojourner Truth piece. I’m living in Rosendale, New York and Sojourner Truth was born there. It’s the kind of circular journey of her Grandma coming from the Congo as we got family into passing to the next world and re-meeting. So it’s right now an exhibit at Cunneen-Hackett in Poughkeepsie and it is accompanied by paintings and large cardboard of people of color who have been shot recently by the police. So those are tandem exhibits right now and we’ll do it as a show again in the spring with some hip-hop Kingston neighborhood kids.
VA: And where is the show up in Poughkeepsie?
AT: It’s at Cunneen-Hackett, the exhibit right now. And the performance will be… not sure, in Kingston in the spring. Then we’re making a woman’s puppet festival in Brazil. So we went to Brazil and I was the only female hand puppet performer with eight other guys doing Punch and Judy type, which are very much like our rascals. There’s a theatre tradition in Portugal, which very much looks like these puppets, which I had never seen those puppets before. But they’re in the same family. Any case, next year we’re trying for all women puppeteers.
VA: Well wonderful and I hope that this production has a life beyond this venue.
JH: It’s possible.
VA: Because it deserves it.
VA: It really does. It really is for all ages and just so welcoming to children. Again this little drawing, this little beautiful map of the piece itself, hand-drawn, is like an invitation for children. That they’re in a good place and that the theatre is a place for them too.
AT: Thanks for saying that.
VA: Yeah I loved it, I loved it and I think we want to let you guys go back. Do you guys need me to do anything for you? I feel like I want to give you bodywork or bake you lasagna or…
JH: That does sound good, actually.
AT: Yes, all of the above.
VA: Okay, so I’m gonna get on that. Do you have a kitchen here? Cause they need a TLC.