Melbourne's spring obsession with all things equine overtook Arts Centre Melbourne this week with the opening of War Horse and the Breath of Life, a puppetry exhibition in Gallery One of the Arts Centre, underneath the Arts Centre spire.
The highlight of the launch was the surprise visit of Joey, a full-sized horse puppet and star of the play War Horse, which opens December 31. Seeing Joey whinnying and panting at such close quarters, not mention nuzzling the odd surprised photographer, brought to seeming life by the expert manipulations of a team of three puppeteers, is a remarkable experience.
Especially remarkable is how willingly the brain accepts the illusion that Joey is a real animal. Although a relatively simple creation of moulded wire and cane, it is clear that many decades of craft-knowledge have gone into perfecting the artifice.
The exhibition was introduced by Sonny Tilders, creative director of Creatures Technology, the company behind the arena shows Walking with Dinosaurs and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as the upcoming King Kong musical. There was a wonderful moment at the launch where the curious Joey, literally horsing about in the crowded exhibition space, suddenly came face to face with a five-metre long velociraptor puppet, part of the Walking with Dinosaurs show on loan.
Many pieces in the exhibition in fact come from another Australian company, Handspan Theatre, active between 1977 and 2002. Their work was extremely varied, and the items on display show off a wide array of different puppetry forms and styles. The history of Australian puppetry is well represented generally, with many fascinating articles drawn from the Art Centre's Performing Arts Archive, a colossal resource housed in multiple storage sites around Melbourne, including an enormous cavern immediately beneath the Arts Centre's lawn.
Material from the collection on display includes an odd-looking mechanised horse designed by John Truscott, the legendary actor and costume designer for a production of Camelot, a fascinating contrast with the horses featured in War Horse. There are also plenty of materials on loan, including the Grimstones family, items from Creatures Technology and some fascinating videos involving intricate paper-cut puppets and shadow puppets. If ventriloquist dummies are your thing, then there are also a number of those, too.
There are also costumes, photographs, original designs and some interactive shadow puppets to be enjoyed by attendees all ages.
Most interesting perhaps are those insights the exhibition provides into how the Handspring Puppet Company make their horses seem so life-like. It's all in the ears and tail, apparently. Extremely detailed diagrams and cross-sections reveal the secrets but don't necessarily spoil the magic. After all, the real magic of the War Horse puppets is that they don't really look like horses, and yet somehow they still seem like horses.