Hanne Tierney Puppet Performance at Five Myles

Hanne Tierney Puppet Performance at Five Myles

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On September 26 my wife and I went to see a performance at Five Miles Gallery at 558 St. Johns Place.  We didn't know what to expect: the piece was called "18 Stanzas Sung to a Tatar Whistle" performed by Hanne Tierney who is the owner of Five Myles Gallery.  When we arrived we signed in and entered the gallery space.  Chairs were arranged against the right hand wall, enough to seat perhaps twenty people.  Most of the space was taken up with elaborate clothing and pieces of metal, and on the back wall was a structure that we later discovered had a series of buttons attached to threads that ran up to the ceiling and down to the various objects on the floor. Also, just inside the gallery space, was a set of instruments, most easily recognizable and one in particular not recognizable at all.  Looking at the brochure we discovered that the performance would be of a poem by Ts'ai Yen written roughly about 200 AD.  The poem is about how her life was upended when she was captured by Tatar raiders from the north of China, held for twelve years as the wife of a Tatar chief, for whom she bore two sons, and was then forced to return to China.

When the performance began, the lights were turned down and the musician Jane Wang played a mournful song, setting the atmosphere.  Hanne and her assistant, Brooke Van Hengsberger, began working the threads which raised the clothing as though they were people.  We heard the story of each stanza in Chinese read by Rachel Lu and then Hanne would read in English from a translation by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung as she pulled the puppets up and down.  The first scene was of three women enjoying life together around a lantern.  Then war came and sticks and metal pieces very effectively conveyed the noise and anger of war along with appropriate music.  Ts'ai Yen is now portrayed in dark colors as she is kidnapped.  She has another incarnation in the Tatar encampment and yet a fourth as the mother and wife in her Tatar family.  During these scenes images are projected on the wall opposite the audience -- one of the Tatar camp, another of a horse, when there is a discussion about whether horses should live with humans.  At the end, an august Chinese official comes and demands the return of Ts'ai Yen with the threat of force, and she goes back to her old life.  However, she is utterly transformed by her experiences of the loss of China, alienation in the desert, love for her husband and children and loss of them, all conveyed through clothing moved by threads, music, lights, and Chinese and English narration.


The most striking thing is that there are humans all around making the performance happen, but there are no actors involved.  The world that is left is limited, but the show is quite effective.  There are four versions of the poet, and clothing suggests something of the changes she goes through -- fancy dress with friends, dark clothes like mourning when she is taken, and then the Tatar brown clothing that is very like the desert.  In the first of these she talks with an old woman about the Tatar practice of killing the old when they become useless:  it is horrifying but understandable.  In a second outfit, the poet discusses her husband and has a debate about whether horses should live with people.  In these talks her respect for her husband is conveyed and her love of her boys, but again, she is a foreigner among them.  If we sympathize with her unease among the Tatars, the pompous emissary come to take her back, makes us reverse the feeling.  He tells the Tatar husband that in China women do as they are told, and the husband replies that Tatar women know what they must do.  Tatar life is brutal but has a simple sense to it.  Most important in the limited world of the puppets is gesture – to collapse, to shrug, to raise an arm.  It is a small vocabulary, but every gesture counts.  The lighting and music also play an important role.  The wonderful music composed by Jane Wang enhances the story enormously.  Other sounds were supplied by Phil Soltanoff.  Hannah Waseleski painted amazing images projected on the wall, and Trevor Brown did a great job with the lighting. 


The show works by suggestion; all the different peripheral media help one to become a participant.  Like the poet, we are foreigners in time, space, and culture, but through all that we grasp the terrible cost that is being paid because of brutality and hardship.  We also see, combined with the horror, love and delicacy.  There is a struggle between two forces that seems universal.  Also, as part of the audience, we can appreciate the immense amount of work that went into this piece, the creations by all the different artists, their combination, the intricacy of the performance.  It took years to put this all together, and the performance is precarious. Brooke told about strings getting tangled and other problems and how careful one must be to remember all the moves.  Yet it all came off very well, surprising that something so different could be so intimate.  

– John DeWind

Robbie Klein