In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes, the girl is ostensibly condemned for her vanity and ordered to dance forever.
But Lin Meng-huan (林孟寰), director of the Puppet and Its Double Theater (無獨有偶工作室劇團), isn’t buying it. He thinks the girl was punished for daring to defy state-sanctioned morality and unjust rules.
The idea for a contemporary update of the 19th-century tale came a few years ago when the Arab Spring surprised the world, and just when the ongoing struggles for land justice were gaining momentum.
“It got me to start thinking how an individual fights against the state apparatus. To me, the red shoes are not a curse. Rather, they encourage the girl to pursue freedom and what she think is right,” Lin told the Taipei Times.
Lin’s reflections led to his version of The Red Shoes, a collaboration between his contemporary puppet theater and In Tap (音踏), a tap dance group noted for collaborating with artists from different fields.
It is performed by a group of puppeteers “who are really interested in tap dancing.” says Lin, who writes and directs the play.
Without uttering a word, five performers — including veteran tap dancer Chou Chun-peng (周浚鵬) — click across the stage, manipulating puppets to tell a rather dark story about a girl using her body to rebel against her oppressors. The performance is choreographed to live music by Lei Sheng (雷昇), who plays a melodica (a flute affixed with a keyboard) as well as electric and acoustic guitars on stage. The versatile musician also composes the pre-recorded music for the work, mixing historical recordings of talks by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and other dictators from human history.
The creations by puppet designer Liang Meng-han (粱夢涵) are mostly crude and skeletal figures suitable more for conveying emotions than for depicting realistic actions.
Also, the structures of the string puppets don’t try to conceal the relationship between puppet and puppeteer.
“Audiences can clearly see how the puppets are manipulated by the performers. To me, it is a magical moment to witness inert puppets coming to life,” the director explains.
The marriage of puppetry and tap dance, however, poses a challenge to even the most veteran of artists on both sides.
“Puppetry is somewhat similar to modern dance because both arts pay attention to fluidity and body rhythm. Tap dance, on the other hand, gets its rhythm mostly from the feet … For inexperienced dancers, their bodies tend to be stiff, and their attention is all on the steps,” Lin notes.
Since both puppetry and tap dance require years of training to master, Lin believes The Red Shoes is only the beginning of an exciting marriage between the two art forms.
“As the performers have gotten more and more relaxed, the two very different bodies have gradually grown to accept each other,” the director says.