On Tuesday, the Compagnie Philippe Genty took possession of the National Theater’s main auditorium to begin the complex stage setup for its production of La Fin des Terres, which opened yesterday.
Logistically the show is a huge undertaking. The company has brought with it nearly 7 tonnes of equipment to recreate the magical dreamscape envisioned by the show’s creator Philippe Genty. Samia Doukali, who is the troupe’s manager and responsible for shepherding the performers and equipment around the world and standing in for the aging Genty, said that La Fin des Terres was one of Genty’s most technically ambitious productions.
“The set is extremely complicated and heavy, but the effect we create is very peaceful and light,” Doukali said. This is the widest set that Genty has ever built, and in a new departure, he has devised an elaborate framework of panels. “There are many sliding panels, so that within the big frame that is the stage, he plays around with cutting up the spaces ... He is really experimenting with the view, the image, that he wants you to have. At one point, the massive frame you have in front of you is shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. Like in the cinema when you zoom in.”
Though Genty, 71, developed his art from puppetry, Doukali emphasized that La Fin des Terres was not really a puppet show. “We use the term ‘visual’ theater. It’s not dance, it’s not puppets, it’s not drama, it’s not circus ... When Philippe started in France 40 years ago, there were not many companies doing this sort of thing. People did dance, or theater with words as a way of expressing things,” Doukali said. “Philippe was lucky or clever enough to combine what he liked in other types of thing.”
Doukali said Genty was influenced by Japan’s Bunraku puppetry, in which puppeteers stand together with puppets, visibly manipulating them. “Philippe really likes the fact that as a puppeteer, you could just disappear, even while being so much present as well,” Doukali said.
“In traditional Bunraku, [the work of the artist] is about giving life to a character,” Doukali said. “Philippe developed this into giving life to any kind of object,” she added.
Doukali also sees Genty’s wife and long-time collaborator Mary Underwood as a key player in the development of Compagnie Philippe Genty’s unique style. “They [Underwood and Genty] have been working together for the last 40 years. She was a dancer and she brought the rhythm and the timing [to the productions]. Philippe would come out with these wild ideas, and she helped him give shape and make it into an art where there was none before.”
Genty’s work inhabits the human subconscious, and this world beyond the external differences that divide people and cultures has proven to be universally appealing.
“Philippe, like any artist, you might say, is a rather disturbed person, so I believe he spent a lot of time wondering why he is different from other human beings. He used this [idea], how would you say, as a researching ground ... I think that is where he was clever, for wondering things about himself as a human being living in France, he began to realize that he was connecting with the entire world ... He wasn’t trying to explain something about the world, he was exploring the human being. And human beings are the same everywhere. His strongest point is the subject he is tackling. Some people might say that all his work is about the same thing. And, yes, it is: It is about human beings.”