They Roam the Earth Again

| January 7, 2011

The Three Kings

Yesterday was Three Kings Day, and for me it was an opportunity to revisit and reflect on a project I worked on last year. El Museo del Barrio commissioned the artist Polina Porras Sivolobova to create replacements for the Three Kings puppets they had used for decades in the Three Kings Day Parade. My primary responsibility was “Movement Engineer,” but nothing was to stay put long. Projects like these teach you more than you could ever glean in a classroom. Aside from the philosophical and aesthetic challenge of this project—how do you add something of value in the process of re-envisioning a tradition—much of what I learned had to do with the question of scale.

How do you convey this vision as 14′ tall, giant puppets, for a thronging audience?

As a Feldenkrais Practitioner (a form of movement education) and spatial theorist of education, the challenge was irresistible. Now, a year later, able to step back and see the results more clearly, I was struck again by the lessons learned. One of the issues of scale is that it is easy to lose sight of the human dimension, as questions of engineering and logistics, but also impact and signification, take over. One of my favorite moments from the parade yesterday was towards the end, when a teenager tried to strike up a conversation, addressed to the gaze of one of the puppets. Funny, yes, but it also seemed quite natural. The danger with scaling up—and to be direct, I am thinking here of the challenges of scale that dictate many of our educational endeavors as a society—is that this human connection can be lost, at best becomingThe Three Kings, El Barrio garish or simply monumental, and at worst scaring the children.

Imagine, if you will, the challenge from a movement perspective. The puppets are worn as backpacks, with a large pole rising up to support the structure expanding above the puppeteers. How do you design this extension of the body, this technology of an expanded self, so that it retains the expressiveness of the human form?

The first lesson is to reign everything in. Human movement, at twice the scale, can come off not just as big, but as odd, grotesque, or just over the top. These were Kings, on a singular, weighty, hopeful mission. The puppets needed to reflect that gracefully. The last thing that was needed was for disjointed arms and hands to be flailing around everywhere. And on the flip side, a stiff, rigid structure, that couldn’t express the dynamism of the journey would also fail. All too often, whether in giant puppetry or in large scale organization in general, the structure itself takes over, and the human becomes a kind of transport device for something quite disconnected. Movement then becomes an effect, layered on top, divorced from meaningful organization. So the first principle of the design of these puppets was to always bring every movement back to the balance and movement of the puppeteer. And to do it in such a way that it was relational, bringing in large scale movements to make sense within an integrated and focused movement. To understand this, try picturing yourself carrying a gift—say a lit birthday cake—in front of you. See how, even in your imagination, it organizes and reigns in the range of your movement choices, while asking you to attend to the coherence of what you are doing?

What this means is that the things that have the greatest impact, when scaled up to giant size, are not always what you might imagine. And difficulties of concept or understanding of the dynamics involved become glaringly obvious when magnified. It is all the more a question of subtlety, balance and finding networks of dynamic relationships. Children at the Three Kings Day ParadeWhen done right, you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. A certain quality to the walk. The way the gift is held dynamically, coordinated with but independent of the movement of the torso. The way the head moves freely but orients like our own to the horizon, but also down towards where it is walking and it’s peopled surroundings.

They even danced well!

All this to say, its easy to get caught up with making things bigger, or of thinking at the level of planning: what if we had a giant… or, what are we supposed to do with all of these students? And there is nothing wrong with that. But it means that the real learning is to be had in remaining committed to the human, sensory, and social subtlety of interaction at the heart of the matter. If movement (and school for that matter) is all too often reduced to a system of translations in gridded cartesian space, then, in scaling up, one runs the risk of encountering not the monumental but the monstrous.

Done well, however, one finds the learning that emerges balanced in the very heart of the matter.

Three Kings Parade

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