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Symphonie Fantastique

An imaginative, psychedelic musical visualization of the classic Hector Berlioz  symphony from puppeteer Basil Twist. 

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A scene from Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique” at HERE (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]HERE, the adventurous performing and visual arts institution, has brought back Basil Twist’s hit Symphonie Fantastique (to the Hector Berlioz score) which was created at HERE in 1998.  Symphonie Fantastique is probably Twist’s most famous and in-demand work, although he has produced better work, most particularly in partnership with Paula Vogel (The Long Christmas Ride Home) and Joey Arias (Arias with a Twist), but judging from the sold-out house HERE’s decision to revive it is warranted.

Using the Berlioz work as a jumping off point, Twist has assembled a series of underwater effects in a thousand gallon tank of water (twice the size of the original tank).  Five hardworking puppeteers—Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons and Lake Simons—push and pull objects about the watery stage, brilliantly helped by Andrew Hill’s astounding, color-coordinated lighting.

This time the score is played by Christopher O’Riley whose enormous technical expertise is matched by his between-movement acting moments in which he seemed to be conjuring up the next bits through major mental effort.  I did miss the massive sound of Berlioz’s score, but O’Riley’s talent is indisputable.

Pianist Christopher O’Riley in a scene from Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique” at HERE (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

The HERE staging is posher than the original:  Red velvet curtains now cover and surround the tank, raised and lowered between movements.

Twist’s “Creator’s Note” in the program alludes to Wassily Kandinsky’s musical metaphorical paintings and Twist’s youthful attraction to the possibility of using abstract puppetry in combination with music.  The five-part Symphonie, subtitled “Episode in the life of an Artist,” called to him for its color and storyline which vaguely guide his creation although only the changing moods, rhythms and colors of the score seem be the inspiration for the series of moving abstract images that were mostly treats for the eyes, if not the mind—seductive, clever, dreamy, sensually involving, but more a vacation for conscious thought than an intellectual challenge.

Each movement has a visual theme.  One features tube-like structures that behaved like eels, undulating and swimming about; another, feathery branches whose fine strands moved in mystical patterns; another, a white shirt that took on a ghostly essence; and yet another, waving Mylar sheets, flashes of lightning and sparkling spirits of jellyfish.  The objects used do occasionally cross from one movement to another, acting as structural points to organize what might have been a messy mise en scène.

A scene from Basil Twist’s “Symphonie Fantastique” at HERE (Photo credit: Richard Termine)

In the Sixties, works like Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique would be branded psychedelic and the audience would be puffing on pot.  Now, parents bring their children to experience Twist’s imaginative imagery, although, at 55 non-narrative minutes it might tax young minds—a few mature minds, too.

There’s no denying Twist’s superior position in the puppet world.  His contributions have enhanced numerous ballets, plays and operas.  His Symphonie Fantastique is, for better or worse, unique among his oeuvre.

Symphonie Fantastique (extended through September 2, 2018)

HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, at Dominick Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit

Running time: 55 minutes without an intermission


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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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