Pulling strings

Truly timeless stories — the ones that transcend generation gaps — always include some lesson about the way the world should work.

The Emperor’s New Clothes teaches us not to be vain; Rip Van Winkle warns us not to be lazy; and, according to Aesop’s famous fables, all immoral acts inevitably lead to bad luck.

The famous story of Pinocchio, while dealing with the fantastical consequences of all sorts of inexcusable actions, leaves one point very clear: Telling lies can be extremely harmful to your health!

The Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre/New Studio of Dance is set to premiere a new piece, based on Carlo Collodi’s original Italian tale. The story follows the transformation of an uncarved piece of wood into a lifelike puppet that after various trials and tribulations, finally emerges as a real human boy.

Significantly, Pinocchio not only changes in form and appearance — he also undergoes a metamorphosis of behavior.

Many versions of the story — specifically, the one offered up by the Disney Corporation — oversimplify the plot, often blanching out the tale’s wittier twists. Refreshingly, ACDT gives us an authentic interpretation of Collodi’s work. The opening scene, which this reporter witnessed at a recent rehearsal, takes place in a forest. Gepetto, Pinocchio’s carver/father figure (David Wolf), is searching for the perfect piece of wood for his new project. No dull task, in this production: Here, even the trees are alive. Represented by dancers of all ages and sizes, they wear tap shoes and knock sticks together to produce a woodsy rhythm.

This unusual approach is repeated in a later fencing scene, in which the metallic clatter of clashing swords serves as music. Under the direction of Susan and Giles Collard, Pinocchio offers a full spectrum of dance styles, from traditional ballet to more freestyle modern movements. Severine Gaubert, ACDT’s visiting dancer (from Montpellier, France) performs a particularly contemporary rendition of one of Pinocchio’s dreams.

Dylan Babb does an amazing job in the lead role, draining herself of organic human fluidity and taking on the rigid motions of a marionette manipulated by its strings — all while wearing a daunting, expandable nose ingeniously crafted from a Chinese yo-yo.

When Gepetto finishes carving Pinocchio, his new puppet responds to his kindness with demands, disrespect and disobedience. The story then follows the puppet’s adventures as he learns generosity, wisdom and love. In a similar spirit to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the story has Pinocchio meeting characters both benevolent and malicious on his journey. There’s the all-knowing Cricket (Meghan Brewer), whose wise advice the puppet ignores, thus falling prey to the evil-minded Cat (Coree Taylor) and his crafty partner the Fox (Kati Searles). Luckily for the naive puppet, for every ill-intentioned character he meets, a benevolent Samaritan appears who bequeths him with another chance.

The ancient, culture-crossing popularity of ritual puppetry, which infuses inanimate objects with undeniable life, is the perfect metaphor for the trials of Pinocchio — who, by the story’s end, is actually transformed from a puppet into a living human being. ACDT further stokes the theme with the inventive use of giant, homemade puppets to portray minor characters. The Dog Fish consists of a huge, sharklike head attached to an inflatable, translucent bubble (the creature’s belly). This allows the audience to witness what happens when Pinocchio finds himself swallowed, Jonah-style.

Of course, the most famous repercussion our naughty puppet endures is the alarming growth of his nose, whenever he’s been caught in a lie. Though it’s been considered primarily a children’s folktale, the lessons Pinocchio teaches about integrity and good judgment can be applied anywhere. ACDT’s production strives to preserve the moral lesson, while enlivening it with a truer rendition of Collodi’s classic. Ultimately, though, the outcome is the same: Because Pinocchio is able to overcome his pesky vices, he survives ominous adventures and becomes the kind of boy he most wants to be.

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