Horse Play

October 4, 2011
Web Behrens


“This feels so much better now!” exclaims the happy dancer. “So much easier.”

We’re several stories above State Street, in the rehearsal studios of the Joffrey Ballet. But the dancer isn’t talking about learning a different movement or new blocking. No, he and a partner are strapped into a unique creation built of papier-mâché, plywood, leather and metal. The company has devised a special challenge for itself for its season debut: Under choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s vision for Don Quixote, the kid-friendly comedic ballet, a pair of performers will become the horse—with the aid of a giant steel-frame puppet.

This singular mix of machinery and theatrical magic is a brave new frontier not just for Joffrey but also for the designer-builders of Von Orthal Puppets. Artistic director Cynthia Von Orthal and designer Tiffany Lange have been working on the horse, nine feet from nose tip to tail, since June, when they submitted their initial designs to Joffrey creatives. In the months following, the horse gestated through various stages: small-scale wooden model; full-size clay face mold; steel skeleton, welded together.

The resulting noble beast rests on the shoulders of two dancers. Its massive neck can be lowered by pulley, manipulated from within the puppet by the dancer in front, while a third cast member (playing Don’s friend Sancho) controls its head movements. Or rather, his head movements: With the amazingly lifelike touches of moving ears and batting eyelashes, the puppet has earned the affectionate nickname “Otis.”

“In the [original] book,” Von Orthal explains, “Cervantes says Don Quixote named him Rocinante, which sounds very knightly and grand to Don. We have fondly named him Otis, which to us means a very friendly, country horse.”

Once his frame was welded, Otis spent a few weeks at the Von Orthal studio in Ravenswood, suspended from the ceiling on hooks, while Von Orthal and Lange fine-tuned the harnesses and padding required to safely wear him. When they delivered him to the Joffrey in mid-August, the members of the company were roundly amazed (and rightly so; he’s quite a sight to behold). “First they were like, ‘Whoa! So beautiful. My gosh!’ ” Von Orthal reports. “And then they were like, ‘Whoa. He looks heavy.’ ”

Everyone says that at first—although it turns out, he’s lighter than they think. Still, the challenge for the designers was counterbalance: The dancer/puppeteer in the front carried a disproportionate amount of the heft, thanks to Otis’s head and neck. After puzzling for a while, “We thought, ‘Let’s try some mountaineer straps!’ ” Lange explains. At the bottom of the rear harness, they added straps that go behind the butt and wrap around the thighs, like mountain climbers wear—“and they work great.” They’d just sewn on the straps on the day we visited, hence the dancer’s happy exclamation.

The amazing result should add an entirely fresh element to this ballet, an adaptation of the famous Russian original first performed in 19th-century Moscow. “In most productions, they have a live horse, he comes on stage for five seconds, and he’s gone,” says Ashley C. Wheater, Joffrey’s artistic director. “I wanted to take it further.” Inspired by the London staging of War Horse (now a Tony winner on Broadway), Wheater realized just how much they could accomplish with a giant handmade prop.

Don Q is a comedy ballet,” he continues. “Putting the horse into it as a puppet adds to that.” But it also increases the poignancy, Wheater says: “In the book, they describe him as an old nag. Don Q is frail, his horse is frail, but they’ve stuck together. It really is a family show.”

Watch Otis—er, Rocinante—help his master tilt some windmills October 12–23.