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Pulling strings

David Neumann makes puppets dance in The Happy Prince

HELLO, NEUMANN Choreographer David Neumann goes through the motions.

Photo: Richard Sylvanes

One of my largest inspirations for movement has been watching toddlers move and negotiate balance," says choreographer David Neumann. "All of the impulses and decisions are revealed on the body." Neumann once based an entire piece on the time he watched two young boys yank at each other's puffy coats until they became exhausted.

HELLO, NEUMANN Choreographer David Neumann goes through the motions.

Photo: Richard Sylvanes

One of my largest inspirations for movement has been watching toddlers move and negotiate balance," says choreographer David Neumann. "All of the impulses and decisions are revealed on the body." Neumann once based an entire piece on the time he watched two young boys yank at each other's puffy coats until they became exhausted.

While some pretty heavy theory finds its way into many of the Bessie Award winner's dances, playfulness and spontaneity are also essential to him—which can make his work especially appealing to children.

This fall, kids get two opportunities to see Neumann's choreography: In October, he'll debut The Happy Prince, his most recent project, at the Kitchen (he'll also participate in the Kitchen's zany, family-oriented Dance Improv Game Show in December). Then, in November, he'll perform a rollicking salsa-inspired duet from last year's Sentence at Dance Theater Workshop's Family Matters series.

Right now, Neumann is busy collaborating with puppeteer Amy Trompetter on The Happy Prince, a staging of Oscar Wilde's fanciful fairy tale about a friendship between a bird and a statue. The story begins when a swallow tries to protect itself from the cold by alighting under a colossal bejeweled statue of a prince. In return for the favor, the statue asks the bird to distribute its jewels to the poor, whose suffering it sees from its vantage point high above the town. But ultimately, the world being what it is, the town officials end up tearing down the jewel-stripped statue, a frozen bird at its feet.

Although Neumann and Trompetter say their production was conceived for adults (it will evolve into a full-scale opera by late 2005), Wilde did write his bittersweet tale for children, and Neumann believes the new production will appeal to kids.

"The story addresses greed. It addresses a lot of things that are topical," he says. "And the bird is this really innocent, beautiful creature, just full of love. We think it represents Oscar Wilde."

But how does one choreograph puppets? "We're looking at dancers as puppeteers and puppeteers as dancers," explains Trompetter. The bird might be portrayed by a live performer or by a piece of floating fabric animated by a puppeteer-dancer. And the enormity of the statue will be conveyed by revealing it to the audience only in sections—large feet, a portion of the face, etc.

Because one of his stars is an inanimate object (and lacking the impulses of, say, a toddler), the work has required Neumann to look elsewhere for his signature spontaneity. "You have to have a real sense of empathy," he says about the show's choreographic process, "and you have to be a really good performer, not needing the spotlight but sending it to something else"—in this case, a puppet.

Switching gears comes naturally to Neumann. "He knows theater, he knows movement, he knows puppets. He's like the downtown-theater doctor," says Trompetter.

It's this ecleticism that helps him balance playfulness and intellectualism. "I'd rather engage the audience in their imaginations," he says, "than have them run through the maze of mine."

The Happy Prince opens at the Kitchen on September 23. See Theater listings for venue information.

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