Savanna – a possible landscape
By Amit Drori
Collection of critics and press reviews
Savanna, A Possible Landscape, Barbican Pit, London
Amit Drori’s Savanna looks like a mechanical Eden. Enchanting robot creatures nose the air and investigate the stage: a trundling tortoise, a springbok made of springs. There are “ohhhs” of wonder and delight as each new animal emerges. Appearing as part of the London International Mime Festival, Drori’s work starts with a stage full of crates and boxes. In voiceover, he tells the story of his mother’s piano, an old instrument that required intense maintenance. The young Drori resented the way it took his mother’s time, but was awed by the sight of its inner workings, like the skeleton of an elephant or a whale. When the piano finally became unfixable, he tried to build a creature from its strings and hammers. Savanna, A Possible Landscape is the story of that battle; it’s a landscape of memory and loss as well as a paradise of automata. Like the animals, designed by Drori and Noam Dover, it’s both bewitching and matter-of-fact. By extending its aerials and adding tiny wheels, one puppeteer turns a transistor radio into an insect. Another unfolds a large moth, carrying it in “flight” about the stage. When he puts it down on a tree, it continues to flutter its delicate wooden wings. I love the tenderness with which Drori and his team pilot their creatures, every movement precise and gentle. The elephant, the remains of the piano, remains a struggle. It has wonderful ears and a long, flexible trunk, but Drori fought to make it walk. On stage, the big elephant lies down to die, covered by projections of leaves. A smaller elephant walks bravely away: a solution, but not to the original problem. These animals have bold personalities. A cardboard box rolls forward under its own steam. When the puppeteers lift it up, there’s a tortoise underneath, markings outlined in curves of pale wood. It’s not at all sure about the music rattling from the radio grasshopper. When the puppeteers retreat to a camping tent, the tortoise tries to follow them, but is baffled by the raised threshold. It rolls off in search of further adventures. The observation of animals is superb, gorgeously realised in mechanical detail. The springbok’s legs are mounted on wheels, so that they piston in just the right rhythm as it rolls forward. A crane spreads beautifully articulated wings. The sightlines at the Barbican Pit are poor: the audience leans forward and cranes necks, reluctant to miss a twitch or a whirr of these fabulous creatures.
“Le Monde”, France
The possible paradises of the Israeli artist, Amit Drori
In “Savanna, a possible landscape” the 31 year-old artist explores the sensitive mechanics of automated animals.
This is the story of a boy, Amit Drori, who wanted to understand what a piano was made of. And not just any piano: the piano in question was the one his mother used to play, when he was a child, in Jerusalem. The mother died, the child grew up. Bit by bit, he took the piano to pieces. But the piano did not relinquish its secret. It has become something of a Pandora’s box, which Amit Drori, now 31, ceaselessly opens and re-opens. It accompanies him on his life’s journey, guiding his deeply personal research in the world of puppetry. His latest creation “Savanna, a possible landscape” provides yet another example. The profound beauty of his creation is reminiscent of the universe of the great puppet master from Tbilissi in Georgia, Rezo Gabriadze.
This is a journey into an imaginary savanna, inhabited by automated animals: snake, tortoise, crickets, birds, a ram, snails, elephants…they may be made of metal and wood but their eyes speak to us of a lost or dreamt of paradise, watched over by a tree that could have come directly from the scenery of “Waiting for Godot”. Samuel Beckett is one of Amit Drori’s heroes, discovered while studying at the School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem. “As a child, I used to play the guitar and wanted to be a musician. During the first year of my studies, we were introduced to a variety of disciplines. I rapidly became a theatre addict, fascinated by puppets”.
The first puppets that he created were two children with huge heads, very realistic faces and tiny bodies – “they looked like spermatozoa”, he says. Their height was about 30 cm and it took Amit Drori nearly three years to learn how to manipulate them: he wanted them to appear to evolve in weightlessness. “I was astonished by all the possibilities which puppets offer and their ability to express something very complicated on a psychological level. It has to be said that I was a complete novice. There is no tradition of puppetry in the Jewish culture with its ban on figurative expression. There is the Golem, but his role is to remind us that the representation of a human being is a dangerous domain.”
Amit Drori’s father is an architect and his mother, who died when he was fourteen and a half, a specialist in mediaeval art. He ‘borrows’ from them both by the inclusion of autobiographical elements in his creation, described by him as ” a never-ending process”. Each creation matures slowly and it takes the young Israeli several years to complete a show. It was by becoming more deeply involved in mechanics while seeking to make his animals autonomous that he came to use robotics in “Savanna, a possible landscape”.
“It was a nightmare”, says Amit Drori, laughing. “Which keys will allow you to give your animals a lifelike expression? First of all, you have to understand their anatomy and translate it using different materials. But that is not enough. For example, for the baby elephant, my colleague and I worked day and night for a year and a half. Occasionally, it would work on a technical level but its expression lacked all sensitivity. That wasn’t acceptable and so we started all over again.”
This was in Tel Aviv, where Amit Drori has lived for the last three years and has his tiny workshop. There is little or no financial support. “In Israel, independent artists have to manage on their own most of the time.”
Hence the importance of international tours and the welcome offered by such places as the Charleville-Mézières Festival or the Théâtre de Vidy-Lausanne, where Amit Drori is something of a familiar face. His preceding creation, “Orlando”, adapted from the novel by Virginia Woolf, was also presented here. And so Amit Drori continues his journey, in the company of the puppets that bring him back to his childhood. Without forgetting the Golem’s lesson, somewhat softened by his personal experience: “I do not believe that it is dangerous to represent human-kind,” he says, but it could be dangerous to forget that a representation remains a representation.”
Article from “Seviya” MANUEL SUALIS, Spain
The play is the fruit of the actual “art craft’s” work made by the Amit Drori’s crew.
The performance carried out in the “Teatro Central”, has been the only one of this company in whole Spain. All this, due to the work of the director of the scenic field Manuel llanes.
In the Performing Arts School of Jerusalem in Israel, there is a professor called Amit Drori, multidisciplinary artist who is achieving a serious work and who is conscientious of the most absolute line of pure crafts. Because this word sounds sometimes old fashioned, it takes a different meaning when we apply it to remote controlled robots, puppets on the 21st century’s stage. This is what gives life to Savanna.
The basic concept of the universal setting of the puppets on a stage is reinvented when the characters don’t hang down strings, but cables, controlled through a modern joystick, with a complex computer program and a shattering sequence of movements, because of the humanity of its nature. The most peculiar thing in this working line is that none of the five members of Amit’s crew is a computer engineer. They are simply and fully artists, with worries, who succeed to elude logic. The set is located in the African savannah, where the animals meet, and each of them is taking the part of the peculiar essence to its species, following the behaviour’s patterns unique to its environment. Amit’s crew, made of Sylwia Drori, Gai Sherf, Jérôme Verbez and Inbal Yomtovian, are constantly interacting with the animals and as they are doing it, they give rise to an unusual life, almost human.
As the story goes on, crickets and cicadas appear, with wild sounds-over created for the occasion or they even interpret those live sounds effects themselves, always in the discreet background, with several instruments. Live on stage, they build a tree made of wood, where a luminous moth settles, with its wings constantly moving by themselves, during all the performance. Insect sounds perpetually in the torpor of the savannah, the crunching of branches, the insects and invertebrate’s world. On the tree branches, there will be a caterpillar, moving silently thank to sensors which would help it finding the point where to clutch at and also finding its slow way. A tender goat shows up, perceptive, playful, distrustful of humans, as you have to be. It’s the savannah’s nature, not the city’s or the European field’s one, almost dehumanized. When the night comes, the insects’ sounds changes and the light too. Those lights are constantly managed on the very stage, using horizontal spot lights at the top, with tripods, torches, oil lamps o the leds directly put on the animals, like the five snails which, on the contrary of the caterpillar, are using the sensors to avoid crashing into another of themselves, or into the objects that are on the stage, and which are illuminated. The Yehuda Shuky’s voice-over, speaking a perfect Spanish, is warning us that “it’s more difficult destroying than creating”. It’s the ambiguous pride of humanity that drives us to destroy, when the real beautiful thing for its difficulty is the creation.
One of the play’s most relevant moment, is the tender scene of the elephants. The difficult thing is creating a huge turtle which appears under a box, letting the public astonished, and which moves on wheels, depriving the animal of its natural slowness. Even though the most surprising element is the accumulation of movements that the head and the neck possess, making the animal moves in a really beautiful, lively, almost real and fascinating way. Just like other scenes which stand out during the performance, the two elephant’s meeting, mother and son, and the death of the first one that force the baby elephant to set out for new territories. With this scene, they manage to create a maternal feeling in the public, because they bring on the tears not only with the images, which at this step are totally accepted as real, but with the worrying music and the projections in the wood boxes where the robots are having a rest, images handmade by them, a genuine laborious job. Above all the moment when it rains in the savannah and each drop is made by a one millimetre incision in a paper. Authentic madness of patience, mime and hand-ability. The result is surprising.
The scene of the birds flying and turning round on the sky ceiling, is created with large sticks and on their end, they place those birds, and Inbal Yomotovian is in charge of turning endlessly, with the aim of making us believe, with false perspectives, that the bird’s flight is real, as if we could see from the same altitude as the birds. Surprising.
The Teatro Central’s end of season Savannah closed the season of the Teatro Central de Sevilla with a play that we were expecting and took a long time to get to Sevilla and the rest of Spain, and that we had the chance to see thank to Manuel Llane, who picked it up in France and brought it to Sevilla.
This group of young Israelis has an unbounded sensitivity that, from the fiction, brings us back to the real nature. The proposal of animation from the robots ‘artificial intelligence has background reading, the one of the myth of the golem, the one of the Jewish rabbi who lived in Prague and decided to create a puppet made of clay which grew as far as it became a men, a puppet that the rabbi Low managed as one pleases when he put in its mouth a paper with magical words on it. Till the day when he forgot to put the paper and the puppet turned itself against him. With Savannah, Amit Drori gives us a present, a lesson of humility and a way back to our roots.
Because the pride, the power of man that he believes to have above all, is what causes him his own destruction. The animals created by Amit Drori’s group, at one point make us believe that the robots are able to create life, but the experience tells you that they are also able to take it away. The best, our own nature, with our wisdoms and our mistakes, but without cables which manipulate us. Amit Drori, with his work, gave us the present of a lesson of humility and a way back to our roots, curiously through the machines.
Article from Badische Zeitung, Switzerland
The Symbiosis of Animals and Machines.
It´s not that the downfall of the West necessarily springs to mind immediately, and yet Savanna: Un paysage impossible by Amit Drori deals precisely with this amorphous unknown which is unlike anything that has gone before. At the “Off” of the Roxy Theatre, Basel, his mother´s old, un-tuned piano from 1920s Paris provides the framing structure for the piece. The piano is now so old as to be un-tunable, and serves Drori as material for his theatre installation. He deconstructs this symbol of the well-educated and refined bourgeoisie and gives it new life. It used to be music that gave these slabs of wood wings, now in the 21st century it is technology, and more precisely bionic technology. For out of this piano Drori creates stories, robot animals and moving sculptures. It is a bewildering game which he has created. The pieces of wood have stage presence; the machines move like real animals; and the puppeteers are manipulated by their own puppets. Take the enormous moth for instance: As it comes to life it drags its puppeteer into the light, hovers for a moment, then flies off – just as real moths do. Or those creatures slithering across the floor – surely they’re snails, despite the speed at which they move…? But only the see-though, shell-like panels on their backs, their upright bodies and the feelers on their heads really suggest that they are snails. The robots continuously play with our expectations, thereby continuously cheating them. Nothing seems to make sense: the huge hawk-sized moths, mountain goats not even as big as dogs, and a caterpillar as thick as a snake. The caterpillar is made up of individual parts strung together. One of the puppeteers slings it around a branch, lets it stretch across an abyss and makes sure that it doesn´t fall down. The puppeteer’s gestures, which go far beyond functionality, give the animal-robot life. The caterpillar becomes a character, which takes us beyond mere fascination for the puppetry. This is even clearer with the elephant. The young elephant has just crossed the savanna with its mother, but she has died, probably shot by poachers. A lonely and desperate young robot-elephant stands on the stage, moving us to tears. Its highly complex trunk looks for the mother, its mouth seems to be screaming, its heavy feet stamping in confusion. Just as music once imbued this piano with far more than its function as an instrument, now it is technology which give these wooden parts their aesthetic power. Technology, educational art and theatre all go hand in hand here, creating this country, this Savanna of the title, even if only in our imaginations. Amit Drori creates characters who provoke the spectator through meaning, but who allow reflection to seep out into a non-conclusion – because of course snails don´t run, and moths aren´t hawks. Wherein lies the fascination of this piece: impossibility and the imagination’s ability to conquer it. This piece is ageless – it would enchant both lego-playing children and wise grandmothers.
Article from LE TEMPS – M.-P. Genecand, Switzerland
The thunder and vast gestures of certain theatrical productions leave a lasting impression. Others are more discreet and touching due to the space they reserve for the imagination of each spectator. This is what Amit Drori proposes in Savanna, presented at Vidy. Here the Israeli director and designer displays his mechanized bestiary – antelope, elephant, cricket, birds, etc. – whose simplicity and delicate mobility provide a moment of time outside time, in suspension, “a possible landscape”, in its author’s words. The story? This is how the family piano, a wild prey which the mother has always sought to tame with her unbridled scales, provided the son with its steel entrails for the manufacture of his automated animals. The instrument, with its changes of mood, survives in the automatons which occasionally resist, just as the memory of elephants still retains the massacres of which they were the victims during the XIXth century. A question of traces, of long buried memories, of a distant landscape which the artist and his four accomplices bring back to life. Wooden packing cases litter the stage and within them are the animal-robots – “each of a different manufacture in order to preserve their essential expressions and sensitivity.” Indeed, between the cricket with its long antennae and body of a walkman playing John Lennon and the giant butterfly whose elegantly beating wings accompany the whole performance, there is a world of difference. A savannah, to be precise, suggested by the twisted tree which takes form before our eyes and also by a standing lamp which may be the setting or the rising sun. These are hints rather than a concrete scenic environment. Within this mobile environment, the puppeteers animate and observe (for certain robots are autonomous) their chosen animal. One is involved with the caterpillar, another with an elephant. The third has chosen the cricket and, before long, three white birds take flight, balanced on shoulders.
Savanna is essentially composed of images, gently caressed by subtle lighting effects and transposed into a quivering auditory landscape. Savanna is also about looking. Amit Drori and his companions view their puppets with such fascination, humour and affection that the
spectator comes to endow the animated objects with souls. Even a simple projector becomes a protagonist. Ir might be a cyclops watching its prey or perhaps a silent and sceptic scientist. The spectator’s imagination can run away with him and this is the dearest wish of the show’s creator.
Article from Wallpaper, London
By Malaika Byng
A cricket fashioned from a radio; a wooden tortoise mounted on wheels; and a heron crafted from servo motors, wood and remote control equipment. These were the strange creatures roaming the ‘plains’ at London’s Barbican Centre last week in theatre director Amit Drori’s staging of ‘Savanna: A Possible Landscape’. Brought to life by Israeli designer Noam Dover and Drori, their movements were remarkably realistic – the tortoise’s head twitching curiously as it lumbered through the scrubland and the heron beating its wings with muscular strength. The sculptures are the creatures of Drori’s childhood imagination. Narrating the production himself, Drori’s story begins with his mother’s obsession with her piano, an instrument that proved almost impossible to tune but on which she lavished constant attention. Looking upon it with a mixture of resentment and fascination, the young Drori finally took a hammer to the piano after his mother’s death, smashing it up to conjure a new world for himself, complete with animals made from its strings. To play out his imaginary savanna on stage, Drori turned to his friends and long-time collaborators Noam Dover and Michal Cederbaum, who are partners in work and life. While Dover and Drori created the creatures – controlled by puppeteers in the production – Cederbaum devised a series of projections for the show, evoking Africa in the depths of the concrete Barbican. The automated creations might appear somewhat crude at times – assembled from a concoction of instruments, gadgets and materials – but the hand-crafted mechanisms that drive them are extremely complex. The robots had to go through a rigorous training process, in which the Dover created banks of behaviour patterns, actions and expressions. On stage, this translates into almost human gestures. ‘We’re interested in the intersection between craft and technology’, Cederbaum told us after the show. ‘We like to call it “craft robotics”.’ In the Barbican Centre, this gave the creatures a sculptural, almost poetic feel. But the ‘craft robotics’ idea doesn’t just take animal form for Dover & Cederbaum. The pair – who take multidisciplinary design to the extreme, working across everything from furniture and interiors to graphics – are currently creating a series of tableware, in which the vessels move when you touch them or fill them with fruit. Dover & Cederbaum’s collaboration with Drori feels like it was produced with a design audience in mind. The viewer even gets to watch the stage being transformed into the savanna – a wooden tree being built piece by piece before their eyes – and the materials and technical elements that are normally hidden back stage are integral to the show. The mechanical beasts are now migrating to Taiwan for a performance later this year – but if you can’t make it out East, you can catch a very different breed of Dover & Cederbaum’s work at London gallery 19 Greek Street from 28 March. Here you’ll spot a collection of limited edition furniture and objects crafted with an equally adventurous spirit.
Amit Drori’s Robotic Wooden Animals Are Like A Da Vinci Drawing Brought To Life
The Creators Project, Vice Magazine, London
Until recently my knowledge of puppetry began with Punch and Judy and ended with Being John Malkovich. But this all changed when master puppeteer and theatre producer Amit Drori invited me to his latest show Savanna: A Possible Landscape. The production is based on the lives of African animals portrayed by handcrafted wooden robots and, like a steampunk Attenborough, Amit invites the viewer to take a robot safari through this mechanical jungle. I caught up with Drori before a show in London’s Barbican centre to talk about the production and meet the robots. When I arrived I found him busy working with projections on large wooden crates while other performers were running around putting batteries in remote controls and working on laptops—it felt more like a Daft Punk sound check than a rehearsal for a puppet show. After a tour of the set and an introduction to the robotic cast—which included two elephants, a giant tortoise, a gazelle, and an exotic bird—I met the team of artists who spent two dedicated years designing and building the robots from scratch in a small studio in Tel Aviv. “We wanted to have complete control” Drori says, “We needed to create everything ourselves to get the emotions and expressions we wanted from each of the creatures. It was two years of daily work—it became almost an obsession.” As the performance began the narrator explained that the animals are his imagination’s attempts to create new life from the pieces of his deceased mother’s beloved piano. However, there are other reasons why Drori wanted to create wooden, rather than metal robots. “We wanted them to seem personal. I think the biggest challenge of the production was to make warm machines. We are constantly surrounded by machines, they’re produced en masse in factories, and they’re cold and impersonal. Each of our machines are one of a kind, they’re made with care and emotion.” The robots are certainly impressive, they have an intricate, almost clockwork aesthetic yet somehow they manage to capture the essence of their biological counterparts too. “The whole show is a kind of artificial nature.” Drori explains, “There are five performers on stage and we create this nature from scratch, so in a way we give life, but we also take life. Death is also part of nature. We the performers are the manipulators, the people pulling the strings in the natural world—almost like Gaia.” This power over life and death is exercised in the performance’s most memorable scene where the mother elephant is shot by poachers, leaving the baby to walk the Savannah alone. It’s a very moving scene and testament to Drori and his team’s skill that a remote-controlled wooden elephant can portray such acute sadness. Explaining his decision to cast elephants in the lead role, Drori told me: “When we began the project we did a lot of research into the animals because we wanted to recreate their anatomy, movements, and behaviors. When researching elephants I found they had a really unbelievable death conscience. They have funerals, they grieve and they bury the bones [of the dead]—then they come back every year and touch and smell the bones. It’s incredible and I was really touched by it.” The accuracy of the robots movements and behaviors, while remarkable, left me curious as to why Drori chose to leave the robotics exposed and the wood unpainted—why not go for complete realism? “We’re not trying to create an illusion, they’re not that realistic. The robots themselves are very exposed, the mechanics are visible throughout the performance. So it was never about creating an illusion, it was about creating a metaphor. When you look at it you don’t see an illusion of elephants in the savannah, you see robots of elephants in the savannah, so it’s something else—it stands on its own.
Article from Total Theatre, London
The performer/technicians were sitting patiently on one of the many packing crates scattered on the stage, behind what looked like an architect’s model of an office complex or railway station. Wires and technology were visible too. The soundtrack began, revealing that the cityscape was in fact the insides of the narrator’s dead mother’s much loved piano – an instrument which he had conscripted for his art, releasing it from mourning and giving it new life within the artist’s imagination. The first animal to be revealed was a moth – apparently crafted from bits of piano, it flapped its mechanical wings gently while the puppeteer moved it about the space. A bug with radio-aerial antennae chirruped as an articulated caterpillar arched its back and made its way across a beautifully constructed packing-crate branch.
The creatures were intriguing curiosities and I was fascinated to see what they could do. There were moments of brilliance when Savanna became a transformative piece of theatre: when a flock of birds were expertly manipulated on long sticks, or when the emotions of a baby elephant facing its dying mother were delicately, mechanically expressed. As the soundtrack explains, Savanna exists between memories and fantasy. Memories of a dead mother woven into the physicality of her piano and memories within the piano itself – from fingerprints left on its ivory keys to memories in the vibrations of the strings – now transformed into creatures, music and scenarios imagined by the artist. It also exists in a place between puppetry and automata and this is where it was sometimes uncomfortable: the tenderness of movement of Amit Drori’s exquisite handcrafted mechanical creatures worked better when the humans kept their hands off. Shifts from remote-controller to puppeteer to a performer interacting with the creatures were often distracting. Amit Drori’s Savanna is an ambitious project exploring the edges of automata and puppetry. I very much look forward to seeing what the company will do next.
Article from Glass magazine, London
Savanna: A Possible Landscape, offers no tangible narrative which can be retold . Instead, it is a presentation of a ‘possible landscape’; an entirely mechanical and man-made technological world, where humans are the masters of an environment which they have fashioned themselves. Absent of speech, Savanna is an intensely visual piece, which invites the audience to observe the strangely natural habitat of impressively hand-made ‘poetic robots’. These robots are delicately constructed creatures guided amidst the sand-coloured woodboards, paper screens and even around a hand-constructed wooden sculpture of a tree which looms over the stage. Each creature – two elephants, a caterpillar, a tortoise, birds and a radio insect-like thing are remote controlled and led throughout the artificial landscape by a troupe of deeply focused actors. The result is a whimsically graceful and poetically affecting viewing experience. Especially pleasurable was the slow pace of a controlled world, the almost meditative movement of the actors and the animals as they carefully manoeuvred around the brittle landscape. I could just sit and watch the animals for hours as they existed silently, feeling as if I was watching an episode of David Attenborough’s Life series. It was genuinely fascinating to observe the human and mechanical creatures move around the stage, evoking an unusually organic and fluid environment in spite of the surrounding artificiality The creatures became humanly animate, as they exhibited and mirrored human emotion. The well-chosen haunting music also contributed to creating a living and natural atmosphere. Yet, however life-like the robots appeared, we were never allowed to really forget their true nature. It was uncomfortable and arresting to see exposed the mechanisms and structures of the creatures – their wiring and in essence, their internal technical organs. This simultaneous technological strength and fragility was strange to witness, as it induces a consciousness of our own human fine-tuning, and the precarious nature of the body’s inner mechanisms.