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Puppet arts head spends sabbatical directing Firebird ballet in Taiwan

by Sherry Fisher - November 13, 2006

When Bart Roccoberton was invited to Taiwan to direct Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird, he jumped at the chance.

"I just knew it would be a fabulous experience," says Roccoberton, director of UConn's Puppet Arts Program, who spent his sabbatical during the spring semester working on the show.

The production was a collaboration between Taiwan's National Symphony Orchestra, and The Puppet and Its Double Theater, also in Taiwan, headed by Jo Cheng, a 1990s graduate of the Puppet Arts Program.

The Firebird is based on Russian folk tales involving a prince who captures a firebird.

When the bird begs for freedom and the prince releases her, she rewards him by giving him a magic plume.

Stravinsky's music was brought to life by a 90-piece orchestra, a cast of 19 contemporary and traditional puppeteers, children's theater performers, dramatic actors, ballet and contemporary dancers, and Chinese opera performers.

Roccoberton says the show marked the first time in Taiwan's history that puppetry, ballet, and orchestra were combined in one performance.

"It was wonderful how everything came together," he says.

"We had all these different movement languages, and the choreographer worked with the whole group to create a common physical language. The dancers were taught how to do puppets and the puppeteers were taught how to dance."

Adult-size rod puppets, elaborately crafted and costumed, were manipulated from behind by unseen puppeteers.

"The only performer fully visible was the dancer who manipulated the firebird," Roccoberton says.

"When I gave her the mock-up of the puppet and she started playing with it, I was amazed. She was spinning and spinning and zooming around. I thought, 'wow, she's bringing to me more than I was looking for.

"I must take advantage of this. I changed my entire thought process on how the bird was going to be performed because of the talent of that woman."

Roccoberton says he researched the folklore behind The Firebird, and found "there was no one clear story. So I took bits and pieces from different places and we created our own scenario. It follows the ballet, but we added a lot to it."

The Firebird and the Prince in a production of Stravinsky's The Firebird, directed by UConn's Bart Roccoberton in Taiwan.
The Firebird and the Prince in a production of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, directed by UConn’s Bart Roccoberton in Taiwan.
Photo by B.P. Roccoberton

In terms of social commentary, he says, "the prince and the princess become a team. It's not just him protecting her. She's a very strong character."

The stage at Taiwan's National Theater Hall is the size of the Metropolitan Opera's, and its auditorium seats 2,500 people.

"At first I wondered how we would fill the stage, but in the end, there was no space to spare," Roccoberton says.

The show was so popular, that the four performances originally scheduled were sold out before they were advertised.

Two more performances were added later.

Roccoberton says the most exciting part of the experience was the people he worked with.

"I had the leading set designer in Taiwan, the leading light designer, the leading costume designer, and the leading orchestra conductor," he says.

"I was in heaven."

One of the performers in the show is attending UConn this fall. Ken Ko, a third-generation hand puppeteer - his grandmother was the first female hand puppeteer in Taiwan - had long dreamed of studying puppetry with Roccoberton.

"I am very happy to be here," Ko says.

"In Taiwan, we buy and use traditional puppets. Here, the challenge is to build, design, and perform."

Roccoberton says The Firebird will be performed in cities in Asia and Australia in 2008.

"The idea is to work with their symphonies," he says.

"So far, it's Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Perth. And we're hoping for Bejing and Tokyo."

He is also thinking about an American tour.

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