BALI HIGH: "WAY OF SNOW," Teatr Loh at the Ark Theater, 131 Spring Street

“Theater of Images” is a term coined by editor Bonnie Marranca to incorporate the work of such ‘70s innovators as Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, and Mabou Mines’ Lee Breuer, directors whose concepts eclipsed plays and performers in importance. But the term serves to describe more than this narrow slice of auteurist theater. Much of the experimental theater in the last decade represents a reawakened interest in ancient stage magic; its focus is apt to be visual rather than verbal, theatrical rather than conventionally dramatic. And “theater of images” is the phrase that occurs to me thinking about Teatr Loh’s brilliant Way of Snow.

Conceived, directed and designed by Julie Taymor, Way of Snow is called a “puppet/mask trilogy,” and most of it is performed by puppets, but to call it a puppet show would be a vast oversimplification. In the 55 minutes or so it takes to perform the piece, Taymor and her company of six puppeteers, two dancers and three musicians tell a three-part story about history, insanity, and survival using almost every imaginable method of visual representation. 

Part One, “Eskimo Snowfields,” opens with a snowstorm of white feathers gently shaken from a pedestal by a white-masked figure. A story is told, but – as throughout the show – there are almost no words. A thin young Eskimo figure interacts with a dancer in a large, elaborate headdress that looks like an angry sun or perhaps a giant wooden snowflake. Fish-skeleton puppets emerge from stretched-canvas ice floes – the tribe is starving. They recount the legend of Sedna, a sort of sea goddess: her husband, a dog, cut off her hand and threw it in the sea, where her fingers became all the different varieties of fish. The underwater sequences are performed behind a scrim by shadow puppets, in the same style as the “plagues section” of Elizabeth Swados’s recent The Haggadah, which Taymor also designed.

The second part is called, and takes place in, “Indonesia.” This has the simplest story, a parable about the clash of Eastern and Western cultures: an old man taking his bull to town, presumably to sell, is passed by all sorts of motor vehicles, one of which eventually runs into and kills the bull. The natives are beautiful foot-high rod puppets, the bull an actor in rough burlap, the traffic a dazzling and colorful series of shadow puppets, and the hit-and-run perpetrator merely a set of headlights approaching the scrim and red taillights receding as the farmer-puppet gapes in despair.

Part three pulls out all the stops to create a miniature “New York City,” with fossils (those fish skeletons) buried deep within the city’s foundations, skyscrapers (silhouetted IBM cards), subways, escalators (paper cutouts, also silhouetted), elevators, etc. The soundtrack, heretofore played live by a wild, thrilling ensemble of Eastern instruments (percussion, flutes, mallet instruments, rattles), becomes hot saxophone and a restless radio tuner. The central figure in this section is a woman telephone operator (played by a masked actress) who is also duplicated by a small puppet dressed identically and manipulated by roads – just as the operator is manipulated by her headset. Then a shadow-puppet version of the same woman appears on the scrim, the operator gone “out of her head” and flying around in the sky with a mini-version of the sun-snowflake from Part One. The woman goes to see “Dr. Vaselino, psychogalvanizer,” who takes her behind a screen and “operates” on her head, extracting a tree, a bird, a boat, a fish skeleton. She takes the subway home and encounters a bag lady (an actor in costume) who resembles Sedna the sea goddess.

The symbols that recur throughout Way of Snow make almost indescribable connections between ancient history and the modern world, deprivation and spirituality, insanity and eternity. “The way of snow” is a paradoxical thing – snow can exist for only a moment and then melt, but snow is also a perpetual thing, especially to Eskimos. To go the way of snow is to live and to die, presumably, and so this is the story of life told in the most charming and challenging and least ponderous way.

The puppets in Way of Snow are so beautiful, and the other methods of image-projection so numerous and mystifying, that I decided to get a closer look and, of course, find out more about Julie Taymor. Tall, friendly, 30-ish, Taymor is the head of Teatr Loh, a company she founded while living in Bali on what started as a one-year Watson Traveling Fellowship and ended up a four-year stay. Trained as an actress, she worked with the Bread and Puppet Theater, studied masks and mime with Jacques LeCoq in Paris, and learned about Javanese puppetry and dance in Seattle before ever visiting Indonesia, but when she arrived in Bali she was smitten, as so many have been. “What theater means to the culture there is what theater should be,” she said. “It’s spiritual, it’s political, it’s educational, it’s entertaining. And, as some shows go on for, like, nine hours, it’s an event.”

Encouraged by Indonesian dramatist Rendra to put her studies in practice, Taymor compiled a company of dancers, puppetmakers, and performers from all over Bali and Java; they ranged from 18 to 53 and had no common language. Their first piece was Way of Snow, which was almost entirely Taymor’s conception. “I had always been interested in Eskimos,” she said, “and I was thinking a lot about craziness, because a lot of my friends back in the States had been flipping out. And I thought about how we have no sense of community or how to use the energy of crazies, while in Indonesia they respect such people as special or blessed or somehow of use to the community. The possibilities are so great of conveying that through puppets, because they take humans into another plane. And the Indonesians perfectly understand the idea of ‘different realities.’” After Way of Snow, Teatr Loh spent several months developing a group-created piece called Tirai, with which they subsequently toured Indonesia. Taymor is currently seeking funds to bring it to America. (Interestingly, Taymor said that the two one-year grants she and her assistant got to form the company were stretched to pay 10 company members for 2 ½ years of work.)

Showing me her puppets, Taymor noted with pride that she had carved one wooden puppet out of a tree outside her house in Bali and that several of the shadow puppets were made of leather from a buffalo she watched villagers kill and skin. The latter are unusual puppets: the translucent leather is hard-carved, then painted, backlit and held up to a scrim – the result is amazingly detailed. Though most of her puppets follow basic designs, Taymor has made significant innovations, particularly in the interplay between people and puppets: the most memorable scene in The Haggadah featured figures that were a cross between hand puppets and ventriloquist’s dummies, with the operators in plain sight (a technique alien, Taymor said, to the traditionally ego-suppressing Indonesian performers). 

Taymor also explained to me how some of the more mystifying effects are achieved – they involve overhead projectors, Plexiglas reflectors, and so forth – but she asked me not to give them away. You’ll just have to see Way of Snow yourself, and I strongly recommend that you do. 

Soho News, June 14, 1980

See also here: an article on Julie Taymor and Juan Darien