Tree ring circus: Puppets play in a fairy tale of forests

Tree ring circus: Puppets play in a fairy tale of forests
Snow white and the seven puppets: Seven dwarf puppets gather around Snow White, while puppeteers hide inside the a group of pine trees in the silent dance piece “Memory Rings,” premiering at BAM on Nov. 17.
Sierra Urich

Call it “Dances With Woods!”

A puppet theater company will use fairy tales, music, and dance numbers to celebrate the life of a 4,800-year-old tree. “Memory Rings,” which premieres at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Nov. 17, examines the relationship between humans and nature through ancient myths and fairy tales, which often portrayed nature as a dangerous force.

“The story begins with references to Red Riding Hood and Snow White because they identify a time when people were scared of the forest and when forests were magical and enchanted, and people had different relationship to them,” said Erik Sanko, puppet designer and co-founder of Phantom Limb company.

The show is structured around the life of the Methuselah tree — a bristlecone pine in California that is believed to the oldest living plant. Sanko chose myths and stories from throughout the life of the 4,800 year–old tree.

“We reference the Epic of Gilgamesh because, among other things, it is of the same vintage as the tree and it’s the oldest known recorded story we have from 5,000 years ago,” said Sanko.

During the show, eight performers take on multiple roles, operating puppets while disguised as pine trees, donning animal masks, and dancing in front of projected images, as well as moving parts of the set for each scene. But they will not speak during the show, which helps the audience to engage more deeply with the story, according to Sanko,

“We address people on an emotional as opposed to an intellectual level because — without words cluttering up things — people rely on what they see, which are people moving and puppets,” said Sanko.

The show’s visuals will convey the effects of climate change on the Methusaleh tree over its lifetime, which Sanko hopes will convey an eco-friendly message better than any dialogue.

“It will seep into their unconscious and stick with them because nobody likes being lectured to about the world falling apart,” he said.

Sanko composed original music for the show, but it will also use a few nature-themed oldies and pop songs, including Bing Crosby’s “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and a cover version of Cat Stevens’s “Wild World.”

“Memory Rings” at Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater [651 Fulton St. between Ashland and Rockland places in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org]. Nov. 17–20 at 7:30pm. $30.

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