Margareta Sörenson*

Abstract: The article, which is also the introduction of a forthcoming book to be published in English and Swedish,[1] focuses on the close relation between puppetry and dance. It shows how these two artistic genres have developed from antiquity to the present and calls attention to their engaging intersections throughout their long history, referring also to the Commedia dell’ Arte tradition as one such point of intersection. A large part of the article is devoted to the study of the Marionette Theatre in Stockholm, its history, development and unique aesthetic.

Keywords: Mats Ek, Michail Fokin, Gordon Craig, Oskar Schlemmer, Commedia dell’ Arte, E.T.A Hoffman, Mary Shelley, Ballets Russes, Ballets Suédois

Since the year 2000, the Marionetteatern in Stockholm, Sweden (hence: MT), has oriented itself in the same direction as theatre art, in general, and puppet theatre, in particular; namely, toward more and more pronounced mixed genres. Three productions for adults, August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (2007), Fröding the Love Buyer (or Fröding the Love Buyer) (2008) and The Girls (2013) made alloys of text and image//aural and visual theatre.

MT’s new stage in the Stockholm House of Culture and City Theatre was inaugurated in 2014, with a production directed and conceived by a choreographer: The Tightrope Walkers by Bernhard Cauchard. There, beautifully articulated puppets danced with their respective human partners, whom they were, at the same time, portraying.

Paper (Papper), direction-choreography Bernard Cauchard, Marionetteatern, 2016

Cauchard continued with Paper (2016), a break from regular puppet theatre, in that the figures were made of brown butcher paper which was folded, mushed, rumpled and shaped by the four female players—dancing, moving. In the production You and Me, Cauchard himself danced with a human-size puppet. The same year as Paper another choreographer, Claire Parsons, created the choreography for puppets, objects, one New Circus artist and one dancer in Grass.

You and me (Du och jag) 2018, Marionetteatern. Choreography Bernard Cauchard

Claire Parsons was invited to create a work for MT after having been noted for a series of choreographies for children. In several works, she had been inspired by pictorial artists like Pablo Picasso and Robert Rauschenberg, which probably shortened the distance from dance to rhythmic and visual puppet theatre.

Da-da-da, Marionetteatern, 2017

But throughout MT’s 60-year existence and its repertoire runs a red thread, perhaps not exactly of dance but definitely of rhythm and movement. Puppet theatre has a dancing quality and Mats Ek’s first work, Kagekiyo (1966), created during a couple of years at MT, was inspired by Japanese Noh theatre and performed by himself and the dancer Karin Thulin.

The following year, he created a production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, in which both he and his brother, later Royal Court Dancer Niklas Ek, danced. Retitled The Kalfaktor, Woyzeck,in 1978, became the first choreography created by Mats Ek for the Cullberg Ballet. No named choreographer appears at MT after that until the twenty-first century, although the experiments with Bunraku-inspired puppet theatre in Antigone (1977) was such a challenge in its tightly orchestrated work for the puppet players that one can actually speak of choreography rather than theatrical direction.

The Origin of Everything

Dance and puppet theatre are old dance partners, who have taken a turn together in most cultures and traditions. In the long history of scenic art, everything begins with feet stomping, hands clapping and drummed rhythms, music and dance—and figurines. Since what we call “dance” and “theatre” ultimately harkens back to rites and ceremonies associated with religious beliefs, we find performing puppets—many of them dancing puppets—in the oldest traces of human culture.

It is obvious that dance and puppets alternate in the repertoire of the Greek mimes. That puppets also danced as a part of the shows offered by the entertainers of antiquity can be deduced from preserved terracotta figurines: small figures with a thread or metal rod in their head and moveable arms and sometimes even movable legs.

Fertility and sexuality are among the oldest themes of puppet theatre. A couple dancing or a couple in a loving embrace can be found in several early cultures, like the Yoruba in Africa. It is believed that, to them, puppets having intercourse replaced a human couple embracing in public to invoke the Gods to grant good harvest or some other favor.

For a simple type of entertainment, it is also relatively easy to let puppets dance with no particular call for the finely articulated gestures and facial expressions demanded by spoken drama. In street theatre or tourist shows in Rajasthan, India, puppets dance alone or in a group. A thread in a puppet’s head and one thread in each hip, strategically anchored, make the puppet do “Indian dancing,” that is, move their torso in characteristic “sexy” gyrations. These dancing puppets can, in addition, be operated by one single human puppeteer.

The connection between dance and puppets can be observed at several levels, historically and globally. Often, there is a direct connection, where the same or similar dance is executed by puppets or dancers, depending on circumstances. The connection can also be indirect, where puppet players try to copy or parody the dancers. And erotic themes can of course be more exaggerated when using puppets. They are, after all, only puppets!

The aesthetics of puppets and figures has also inspired dance and plays with human bodies. Bunraku, the Japanese almost hyper-realistic puppet theatre, provided the foundation for the popular Kabuki, which has elaborated on the restrained movement pattern of the puppets with the addition of dance, acrobatics, startling showstoppers and celebrity stars.

Puppet theatre demands rhythmic execution and great plastic ability on the part of the puppet handler; this is a fact no matter which puppet theatre technique you speak of. In Bunraku, there are usually three puppet handlers who jointly hold and move a finely articulated puppet, and they must be so well coordinated that one might as well speak of them being jointly choreographed.

In South Indian shadow plays one can see from behind the white cotton fabric of the “screen,” how the players tuck up their long white hip cloths into shorts of a kind, enabling them to freely “dance” their big shadow play figures with good effect against the white screen. Thus, the more graceful South East Asian puppets of Indonesia or Thailand resemble dancers, and, perhaps, their movement patterns have in turn influenced dance.

Business and Entertainment

Puppet players have most often worked alone or in small travelling, itinerant family entities. Marionettes à la planchette (jigging puppets), dating back at least to the Middle Ages, can still be seen sometimes. And the principle is the same as for the neurospasto of Antiquity, puppets moved by twitching on strings. The player sits on a stool with one foot on a board in which a vertical thin pin is fixed. That is where the puppets’ one thread is attached, the other one is attached to the player’s knee—the puppet “dances” when the thread is twitched. The puppet player’s arms are free to play the fiddle or some other musical instrument. “Jig dolls,” used in England, the American Colonies and, later, the U.S., in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were puppets “standing” on a wooden board being wiggled.

Langeleik, the Norwegian long, narrow 8-string instrument. Photo: Wikipedia

An itinerant female juggler, Berit of Pynte, was active in nineteenth-century Norway. She played the langeleik, the Norwegian long, narrow 8-string droned zither and had puppets in a frame connected to her fingers by horsehair strings. The frame was set up in front of the musical instrument on a table, and when she twitched/tugged the strings, the puppets “danced” to her songs and music.

Inclined to be practically oriented and financially squeezed, theatre artists and dancers have pragmatically combined human actors with puppets. In the Commedia dell’ Arte tradition, a company would often work with double teams, adjusting to existing conditions, which could vary dramatically from street shows to command performances at royal or ducal courts. Commedia, largely mimed, was a kind of dance theatre with elements of added acrobatics and juggling. The main characters—Harlequin, Polcinella, Pantalone and Colombine—were puppets, initially string puppets (marionettes). In the nineteenth century, hand puppets became more common, and, perhaps, dance is not the best event/activity for hand puppets. The characters of Commedia, however, were often pleased to take a turn in the world of dance, and the “Harlequinades” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries developed into a whole new genre of brief ballets playing variations on the scenarios of Commedia.

The Norwegian lady, Berit of Pynte, who played langeleik and showed puppets. Photo: K.Knudsen, Universitetsbiblioteket i Bergen

The Romantics’ interest in nature mysticism and in the duality and spiritual longing of man also led to the theme of a mechanized human being and the idea that one might be able to construct a perfect man-made being; or that a mechanically produced/created human figure might turn out to be alive.

We recognize toys who come alive at night, most likely on Christmas Night, from E. T. A. Hoffman’s tale The Nutcracker and the Rat King—a well-loved Christmas ballet. Authors like Mary Shelley and her Dr. Frankenstein with his monster, or Swedish Carl Jonas Love Almqvist with his “mannequin” in The Queen’s Tiara are examples of man-made creatures, as is Coppelia, based on two short stories by that same horror-loving Romantic Hoffman (1776-1822). In Coppelia, Dr. Coppelius has constructed a doll, so beautiful and lovely that young Franz, who is about to marry his fiancée, hesitates and falls for Coppelia instead.


By the time of Modernism’s breakthrough, the fascination with the borderland between mechanical and human beings has perhaps abated. It is rather images that fascinate and enthrall when Diaghilev’s company, Ballets Russes, in the 1910s, and Rolf De Maré’s Ballets Suédois (Swedish Ballet), in the 1920s, elaborate on the dancers’ bodies and remodel them into dancing, almost doll-like, figures. As choreographed by Fokin, for Ballets Russes, the theatre doll Petroushka, the Russian version of Pulcinella-Polichinelle-Kasper, is a living tragicomical figure. In a colorful marketplace, a toy theatre director sets up his stage and Petroushka, Columbine and The Moor—an African character—begin by dancing jerkily, like puppets, but then come alive as real human beings.

The Swedish Ballet dressed its dancers in puffy body masks in Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel and recreated them as Africa-inspired figures in La Création du Monde. The dancers, we are told, hated being reduced to sculptural shapes and hidden in costumes making them ugly and clumsy. Theoretically, the idea of a marionette as the ideal actor on stage was developed by scene designer and theatre artist Gordon Craig, long the partner of Isadora Duncan and the father of two of her children. Most of Craig’s ideas became little more than thought experiments, inspiration for the modernists of scenic art; for instance, the idea of the  “Über-Marionette,” that is, an actor or dancer free from any personal feelings and desires influencing and shaping his/her character, which is supposed to be no more than a small part of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Lindansarna. The Tight Rope Dancers. Marionetteatern 2014,
choreography Bernard Cauchard

The most extreme reshaper of the human body, however, was probably the German Bauhaus architect Oscar Schlemmer, who made the dancers into near-geometric shapes in his Triadic Ballet. He designed a stage which was completely flexible and in keeping with the work of theatre art that was to be performed there. The costumes for his Triadic Ballet were in glowing colors and transformed the dancers to a kind of geometric puppets with conical skirts and cubic heads. To develop the dance itself, that is, any human movement, was difficult with such “bodies.”

Video 1
Oskar Schlemmer – Das triadische Ballett
Objects and Light

Post-modern dance has maintained an exploratory attitude toward dance, often exploring and reducing movement to “pure dance”; that is, dance which neither tells about, illustrates, or comments on anything. At the same time, dance has increasingly incorporated objects, lighting, projections and other elements of scenic art. In that respect, it has approached modern puppet theatre, which often erases old genre distinctions and experiments by using animated objects, shadow play, projections and much more. Street dance is based on several fundamental characteristics of African dance. This dance is often circular, the dancer mastering different rhythms for different parts of his/her body. But the jerky and pretend-mechanical movement patterns brilliantly used in various styles of hip-hop, like locking, may also have been inspired by animated film, clay animations and popular culture figures like ET and R2D2, who surely have added to the fascination with extra-ordinary movement. Thus, dance and puppet theatre continue to twine around and support each other in ever new forms.

Papper (Paper). Marionetteatern, 2016


[1] “Dance and Puppets” is a chapter from the book The Stockholm Marionette Theatre: 60 Years and More, which will be published in English and Swedish (it is bilingual) at the shift 2019/20, by Stockholmia Förlag (Monographs published by the City of Stockholm). The Marionetteatern was founded in 1958 by Michael Meschke and the present artistic director Helena Nilsson took over in 1999. The theatre has its own stage in the Stockholm City Theatre; it is a repertory theater for all ages. The book focuses on the history of this theatre and its exploration of puppetry as a theatre of the authors, a theatre of images and a theatre of dance and music. The translation from Swedish to English is made by Anne-Charlotte Harvey Hanes, Professor Emeritus. San Diego, U.S. 

*Margareta Sörenson, president of IATC, is a Swedish theatre and dance critic, and a writer and researcher in dance history. She has written for the daily national paper Expressen since the early 1980s, and for the Swedish dance journal, Danstidningen, in addition to writing a number of books on the performing arts, the latest on Mats Ek, with photographer Lesley Leslie-Spinks. Her special interests in dance and puppetry have often led her to the Asian classical stage arts and increased her curiosity about contemporary ones.

Copyright © 2019 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Dance and Puppet Theatre