I first learned about Nick Cave’s work in an undergraduate puppetry class. Puppetry, like architecture and some other disciplines, is the synthesis of a myriad of techniques both artistic and mechanical, attracting sculptors, dancers, and engineers in equal number. Similarly, Cave’s 30-strong herd of horses that visited Grand Central last week in his piece HEARD•NY, presented by MTA Arts for Transit and Creative Time, as well as the “Soundsuits” for which he gained initial recognition are genre-bending works of art: they are visual and performative wonders as well as feats of construction. Cave is the director of the Graduate Fashion Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so while he may be an unwitting puppeteer, he is certainly no stranger to the intersections of beauty, functionality, and craftsmanship.
There is a broad range of performance that can be classified as puppetry, going far beyond the instantly recognizable “Sesame Street” hand-and-rod puppet style. Commercial hits on Broadway such as The Lion King and War Horse have brought some of this innovative puppetry work into mainstream consciousness, though there is also a thriving downtown New York scene of independent puppetry that seems to be expanding daily. At its most pared-down, puppetry is the manipulation of an otherwise inanimate object — any prop used on a stage could be considered a simple kind of puppet. But to make a performance that is puppet-based function properly, one needs to consider the construction, use, and necessity of that object in relation to the narrative of the story.
Video by Derek Schultz
While Cave’s Soundsuits are almost entirely whimsical and otherworldly, HEARD•NY takes on the representation of something much more recognizable to us: an animal whose basic movements we know instantly. In this sense, the piece has an inherent element of theatricality and narrative, a transubstantiation of strange to familiar. Cave seems to honor this with a presentational dancer entrance. Black-clad performers enter and stand silently. At a certain moment, each duo begins to get into their costumes, helping each other as needed. The process culminates in the body of each horse attaching itself to the rest, the long raffia strands of both costumes allowing the two sections to seamlessly fuse together in a stunning transformation. At this point, the performers are silent.
Breath is an important tenet in every type of performance. In mask theater and puppetry, taking time to breathe is a crucial element of giving life to an object. Given the right physical magic, an audience will suspend disbelief even after watching dancers climb into horse costumes. And that’s what happened as these 30 horses stood still, doing nothing but breathing. This moment was what solidified my opinion of HEARD•NY as a work of theater and puppetry as much as one of dance and visual art. There was dramatic tension. There were huge animals in the space with us. It suddenly seemed dangerous to me that the ushers, while removing the sawhorses that had been used to display the costumes, were walking around the animals from the back. I thought for sure they would get kicked.
A common obstacle that I have both experienced in making this type of work is the extra time needed to fully explore a fabricated object before it goes onstage. It might be difficult to know how a puppet really wants to move before it is constructed or practiced with. It seems to me that Nick Cave developed the movement in HEARD•NY with care and intelligence. The horses have shaggy, raffia bodies, reminiscent of traditional African ceremonial garb worn in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. The horse-like movements made by dancers in the piece was specific and familiar, but just as these creatures are abstractions of horses, part of their allure is the atypical movement that is created, often to highlight the specific sound and movement of the costumes.
Another element of the work that I appreciated from a puppet-theater point of view was the sheer usability of the pieces. Animated by dancers twice daily, resiliency and sturdiness become major factors in the horse costumes’ success. In a work of performance meant to be repeated over and over, the last thing you want is to break the spell you’ve cast by using faulty materials. In the case of HEARD•NY, the brawniness of the horses also added to the believability of the pieces as a whole. Like real horses, these creatures were not as delicate as they may seem.
There is a certain amount of attention and energy required of a manipulator (the puppeteer) to simulate life and power in something that is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Thinking philosophically about the power of objects can lead quickly down a rabbit hole of mythology, symbolism, and Joseph Campbell, but it is true that human beings have a long history of anthropomorphism, giving modern-day puppetry and mask work an almost sacred tinge. The troupe of young Ailey School students who animated Cave’s horses seemed to be an apt choice, and not just because of the African dance-inspired breakdown that came at the piece’s finale.
The very end of HEARD•NY was decidedly less formal than its beginning, with dancers struggling out of costumes, grinning and laughing with the audience. In a way it was interesting to see their red faces and heavy breathing, the physical changes they had undergone. But I couldn’t help wanting a ritualistic end, a formal shift back to the real world. Perhaps witnessing and experiencing a transition out of a created illusion is a bewildering experience in any case, versus the beguiling entrance into it. When an illusion is as breathtaking as HEARD•NY, it’s just a hard thing to leave.
HEARD•NY by Nick Cave was installed at Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan from March 25 through March 31.