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A snowsuit tells tales of terror

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Little Branko and friends
The combined artistic groups Betontanc and Umka tell the story of one man's struggle against totalitarianism using a toddler's snowsuit. The performers call him Little Branko. The show, called "Show Your Face," is part of the Walker Art Center's Out there series.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Few people would link a toddler's snowsuit with the horrors of totalitarianism. 

Yet this weekend at the Walker Art Center some eastern European performers are doing just that. 

In "Show Your Face!" the snowsuit comes alive through a mixture of puppetry, movement and music. 

Chance meetings have played a big part of Matjaz Pograjc's  life. 

He's a Slovenian theater director, a one-time dancer, who years ago went searching for theatrical collaborators during a visit to Riga in Latvia. He was looking for theatrical collaborators. 

He asked the woman he was with about some kids he saw drinking beer from a huge beer bottle outside a liquor store. She said they were a street theater group called Umka.

Matjaž  Pograjc and star
Director Matjaz Pograjc of Betontanc with the star of his production, "Show Your Face." He says he chose the snowsuit as a perfect symbol for the many "people without a face" who were victimized in Latvia and Slovenia since World War II.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"'They are Umka. They are completely crazy,'" Pograjc said before a rehearsal at the Walker Art Center.  "And I said, 'What they are doing?' 'They are doing object theater.'" 

Object theater meant using puppetry techniques to make ordinary objects come to life. 

Before a rehearsal on the stage of the Walker Art Center three of the performers Andris Kalnozols, Gints Sirmelis and Marcis Lacis demonstrate.

With practiced ease Andris grabs the feet of a blue toddler's snowsuit. Gints works the arms and Marcis spreads his fingers into the top of the hood. 

Suddenly what was just a crumpled pile of cloth begins striding purposefully across the stage, head swinging from side to side. Frankly, it's a little freaky.

"And I said, 'This is the character who represents all the history of these no-face people."

They don't always do the same body parts.

"We are changing. Sometimes we are changing," he said. 

They speak so fast and finish each other's sentences it's hard to tell who is whom.  But they need that co-ordination to perfectly mimic how a real human moves.

"Everybody must feel each other. We know each other almost ten years. We feel each other by back, by side, by arms."  

Suddenly the snowsuit, which the company calls Little Branko, steps forward, and despite not having a face seems to peer at the microphone.

"Hello? Hello? Is anybody there?" 

Something startles little Branko and he takes off running and jumping. It's unnervingly real.

"It's kind of that," Andris says, breaking the spell. I tell them the hairs are standing up on the back of my head. 

Back to that chance meeting outside the liquor store in Riga. 

The performers in Umka took Pograjc to the Occupation Museum in Riga. He spent hours there, learning about Latvian life under the Nazis and then the Soviets. He read about the many people who had disappeared under both regimes.

Betontanc
The Betontanc group presents modern European history using a child's snosuit to represent Everyman
Image courtesy Walker Art Center

"After the Second World War, many people, many intellectuals, like scientists, culture, artists, they were put in prison or they took them away. Passports, actually, they became people without a face," Pograjc said. 

They lost their identities, and became what Pograjc calls people without a face. It was not so different to what had happened in his own Slovenian homeland which was part of Yugoslavia. 

Pograjc decided to research the stories of 50 Slovenians and 50 Latvians without faces to use them for the basis of a show. 

The problem was so many people had suffered, they had too much choice. They looked for a character who could be an everyman to represent them. They struggled until one day the Umka crew brought in a kid's snowsuit to demonstrate some tricks. It was another important meeting.

Walker performing arts curator
Philip Bither is performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"And I said, 'This is the character who represents all the history of these no-face people.'" 

The resulting performance, "Show Your Face," is a mad-cap story about a man who learns one night that he is wanted by the government. Seven performers manipulate Little Branko. They are all dressed in black, but wear bright headlamps as they take their character through a nightmare story. 

The company has played "Show Your Face" in many countries since it was first staged in 2006.

Walker Arts Center Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither brought the production to Minneapolis. He says he was drawn in by the way the deceptively simple techniques create an almost magical transformation.

"They are able to bring this empty snowsuit to life so that in matter of minutes you are just drawn right in, like the best puppetry -- whether it's traditional or contemporary, you are completely convinced that this has a spirit and a life," he said. 

Incidentally the Little Branko appearing at the Walker is the same snowsuit brought to life at that workshop in Riga all those years ago. Despite all the abuse he's received over the years, he remains pretty spritely.