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Review: Basil Twist’s Aquatic ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ Is Visually and Sonically Arresting

Symphonie Fantastique

By Sheila Kogan, Contributing Writer, April 17, 2018

Twenty years ago, third-generation puppeteer, Basil Twist, decided to create a totally abstract work based on the music of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. This year, HERE, the Off-Broadway theater, has revived the work as part of their 25th anniversary celebration.


Image from Basil Twist's <em>Symphonie Fantastique</em>

Image from Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique; photo: Richard Termine.

It’s difficult to describe what one sees and experiences in this production: moving fabrics, feathers, sparkling gem-like items, bubbles, and cut-outs. These shapes take on a fascinating life of their own, as if an abstract painting had come to life. Or a visual realization of the music. Or, like fish swimming about in an aquarium. Or fireworks displays. This is a totally abstract piece and can be whatever your imagination suggests. There is no story and it doesn’t resemble any Disney-like, music-based project, like Fantasia.


Image from Basil Twist's <em>Symphonie Fantastique</em>

Image from Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique; photo: Richard Termine.

The abstract forms follow the rhythms of the music. Sometimes there is a sense that the shapes are dancing; sometimes they seem like peculiar, living aquatic creatures. It requires five unseen puppeteers to move the shapes in the specially-designed tank of water. Because you don’t see what makes the shapes move, there is a magical aspect to the performance. But they are “live,” and not some form of animated video.


Pianist Christopher O’Riley in Basil Twist's <em>Symphonie Fantastique</em>

Pianist Christopher O’Riley in Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique; photo: Richard Termine.

The virtuoso pianist, Christopher O’Riley, provides the soundtrack accompaniment to the presentation. Not only is Mr. O’Riley known for his committed  performances with major orchestras, but he is also the host of NPR’s From the Top, where he’s been introducing classical musicians to his listening audience for the past 15 years. O’Riley played the music with full, rich, thunderous tones in a wonderfully arresting, melodramatic presentation.

Basil Twist has created puppets and collaborated on a variety of projects for Broadway (The Addams Family, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), ballet/dance companies (Cinderella, The Nutcracker) and film. Among his numerous accolades, he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for his unique approach and creative vision.

HERE is a wonderful performance space that includes a comfortable little café. The performance is only 55 minutes long, allowing you to spend time in the café discussing what you just saw and what it may or may not mean.


Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique presented at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, through June 17, 2018. Music by Hector Berlioz; created, designed and directed by Basil Twist; lighting design by Andrew Hill. Pianist: Christopher O’Riley; puppeteers: Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons, and Lake Simons.

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Cover: Image from Basil Twist’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ at HERE; photo: Richard Termine.


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