Peter and the Wolf told with larger-than-life puppets.
Hudson Vagabond Puppets
In Peter and the Wolf, Grandfather is 8-feet tall and rides a high-wheeler bicycle. Computer-aided graphics, right?
A story called The Sound Mall explains how the shapes of musical instruments affect their sounds. Must be a crispy-dry book for music-theory geeks, right?
Nope. These kid-pleasing stories are the puppet shows the Hudson Vagabond Puppets will perform July 7 at Wingfield Park.
The Blauvelt, N.Y.-based company specializes in narrated ballets written for pre-K-ers to fourth graders. Some of the puppets from past Vagabond shows are dinosaurs, jellyfish or butterflies, often larger than the people who puppet them. A tap-dancing bull requires two coordinated adults.
The Vagabonds have accompanied symphonies in Phoenix, St. Louis and Detroit. They’ve even played New York’s Lincoln Center. They tour like rock stars, playing up to 200 shows a year.
Resident choreographer Edward Winslow caught up with the RN&R from a hotel room in Detroit, where the company performed at the Detroit Festival of the Arts in June. On a day with two performances, a rehearsal and a television interview, he took some time to talk about how the Vagabonds animate their larger-than-life creatures.
“We hire dancers,” he said. “We retrain them in puppetry. The switch is a natural one. Dancers have a natural ability to express their bodies. A lot of that can be transferred into puppets. When you’re in a mask with a costume on it’s one thing; it’s easy to do. And when you’re operating a puppet from behind, you have to kind of quiet your own body down and animate the puppet.”
One performer, Ron Hoffman, doesn’t specialize in quieting down. His day job is being a clown at Ringling Bros.
“He brings a lot of physical comedy to the shows,” says Winslow.
The puppeteers, clad head-to-toe in black, borrow from the 19th-century Japanese Bunraku style of puppetry. They’re graceful, strategic and inconspicuous as they make a shark swim, a butterfly fly or a bull tap-dance.
Even with a professional clown on staff and larger-than-life creatures in the lead roles, the characters’ blocking and motions borrow more from ballet than they do from the chipper franticness of Muppets, and the production value of the lighting and sound are clearly driven by theatrical perfectionism.
The company’s repertoire includes tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Beatrix Potter, traditional Japanese folk stories and original productions that address topics such as evolution or the lifecycles of Monarch butterflies.
Even with such a broad range of styles and experimental techniques, Winslow said in terms of sticking to the story, the Vagabonds are traditionalists.
“We do Ferdinand the Bull, and we tell the story almost verbatim,” he said. “I think it’s important because when you read a book, you have an image of what the story should look like. We use either classic literature or science.”
“Our stuff has levels of intelligence that all ages appreciate,” said Winslow.
To appreciate in advance, check out the Hudson Vagabond Puppets online study guides (www.hvpuppets.org) to learn how instruments work and how to make your own Styrofoam fork marimba.