‘Forget Me Not’ leaves an abiding impression


Special To The Japan Times

Compagnie Philippe Genty’s “Forget Me Not” (“Ne m’oublie pas”) takes human beings and transforms them into puppets. And it takes puppets and makes them seem human. Occasionally, it combines puppets and humans until it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.

That’s the easy part of describing this French company’s latest piece. The hard part is describing the initially creepy, gradually mesmerizing and eventually moving effect this puppet-human-dance spectacle has on the viewer.

Artistic director Philippe Genty, 76, has been creating performances that combine puppets, dance and optical illusions for nearly 40 years. With his wife and longtime collaborator Mary Underwood, his Compagnie Philippe Genty has wowed audiences in France and around the world.

This production of “Forget Me Not” is a reimagining of a show that premiered in 1992 at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. The current version is a collaboration between Genty’s company and students from the Nord-Trondelag University College of Verdal in Norway. After a run at Shibuya’s Parco Theater, the show embarks on an eight-city Japan tour before returning for one performance at the New National Theatre, Tokyo.

Genty’s productions usually require six months of rehearsals. The director writes that he always starts with the show’s decor, which is “never realistic, it must be constantly evolving, thereby giving free reign to the spectator’s imagination.” He also has an aversion to performers entering from the wings; he prefers that they “suddenly appear on the stage — from the subconscious, they evolve, they transform, and then they disappear.”

“Forget Me Not” certainly looks like it took ages to perfect. It opens on a stark white stage with simple backdrops designed to resemble a snow-covered landscape. When the dancers appear, they crawl across the stage like worms. Some of them look like inanimate objects being dragged, but the stage isn’t moving, and no one is dragging them. The effect is discomforting — a writhing mass of human flesh that seems to blur the line between doll and human, compounded by the fact that several of the dancers are wearing lifelike (but lifeless) masks covering their entire faces.

You would think this humans-moving-like-dolls device would get old, but “Forget Me Not” is endlessly inventive. All the movement-based stories and visual tableaux are executed with a playful spirit that occasionally turns melancholic or mildly sexual. Dancers cavort inside fluffy, marshmallow-like balls, swirl in the middle of giant bolts of silk, and constantly lift and throw each other with such effortless ease that they must be in unimaginably good physical shape.

Thinking back on the performance, I’m still uncertain about how many puppets were onstage and how many humans. Sometimes bodies seemed so weightless when they were thrown (and then landed so hard on the ground, sometimes on their heads) that I was certain they were dolls. But then they got up and continued dancing. Was there some sleight-of-hand going on? I’m sure that’s exactly what the creators wanted me to think.

The director writes that his work “cannot be pigeonholed into any of the usual categories: dance, theater, puppetry or circus. Moreover, it is practically impossible to describe its theme. A handicap that we are more than happy to assume.”

Certainly “Forget Me Not” manages to be both a spectacle and to feel quite intimate. The music is lively and accompanied by beautiful singing, and while there may be no clear narrative, the show never makes the audience feel they’ve missed something.

At 90 minutes’ duration, it drags in one or two spots, but a moment later the energy and eye-popping visuals are back again. And however you may choose to categorize this work involving puppetry, dance and drama, you will see things here you’ve likely never seen before — and almost certainly never will again.

“Forget Me Not” runs till Oct. 26 at the Parco Theater in Shibuya, Tokyo. It then tours Japan before returning to the New National Theatre, Tokyo, for a show on Nov. 19. For details, visit www.parco-play.com/web/play/wasurena.