Out on the courtyard of Hollywood nightclub Boardner's, a crowd circled the central pond, chatting as wax from the large, white candles slowly dripped and hardened to form organic designs. Scattered between the party-goers were the dolls, haunted ones, dressed in black and white, their faces covered by masks so smooth they appeared to be porcelain. There were about thirty dolls total, each coming with a story, oftentimes involving the tragic death or a curse, but none spoke. They wandered to the beat of the music streaming through the PA, approached the onlookers with hesitation. Sometimes they would curiously exam a drink or a cigarette before moving onward. Other times, they would climb onto a seat and freeze like statues. And when the moment hit, a handful would climb the stage and perform a choreographed, hip-hop influenced dance routine.
Last night's Kabinet Theatre was the first of what will likely become a monthly party this fall, hosted by The Wandering Marionettes. A performance art troupe that combines dance and circus arts with striking costumes and avant-garde electronic music. Over the past few years, The Wandering Marionettes have become one of the most sought-after entertainment groups in Los Angeles. If you hit the town with some sort of frequency, you've probably caught them at Cirque Berzerk, Labyrinth of Jareth or nightclubs like Ruin Hollywood and Porcelain. If you head out to the desert at the end of every summer, you may have seen The Wandering Marionettes at Burning Man.
The troupe's roots formed out at the annual desert art gathering in 2005, when founder Krystal Bell dressed in black and passed out animal crackers after a Cirque Berzerk performance.
"I got so much good feedback that I decided that I wanted to have a dance piece, a hip-hop based dance piece, in the next Cirque show," she explains.
The following year, Bell returned with "15-20" dancers in tow and The Wandering Marionettes were born. As time progressed, so did the ensemble. More people joined. Writer/art director Arthur Lozaro created a mythology to connect all of the performers and developed story lines that would guide their productions. DJ Pumpkin created the score, using "cinematic" compositions based on downtempo, fractured beats. Jenn Shields began choreographing the routines as HappE Roberts took over much of the business duties. Meanwhile, Bell and Morgan Olsen expanded on the costumes, which evolved into elaborate pieces that leave no touch of skin uncovered and the masks that have become synonymous with The Wandering Marionettes.
"The mask allows anyone to be that creature," says Bell, noting that it frees performers of their inhibitions. "[We] want anybody and everybody to feel that they can do this. There's no limit."
With Kabinet Theatre, The Wandering Marionettes have gone from being performing at the whim of whoever happens to hire them to pulling the strings of the crowd.
"We had been trying to find a way to establish an environment that we could consider our playground, some place where we could bring people into our world and have a little more control over the elements in the environment that's happening around us, rather than being hired out," says Bell.
At last night's event, The Wandering Marionettes were on duty throughout the night, remaining in character as DJ Seda mixed tunes, popping on and off stage when singer-songwriter Eliza Rickman took to her toy piano and dancing to Welder's set of live electronic music. The crowd that gathered was not so much an audience as it was part of the performance, drawn into a fantastical tale of dolls that had come to life.
"The concept of this environment is the Theatre of Cruelty or the Three Ring Circus," Bell elaborates, "where there's going to be so much going on that you want to come back and see it again and again and again. When you're in the world, there's not necessarily one thing happening in front of you on a daily basis. It's the same kind of illusion that we're trying to create."
" We're really trying to walk the line between a club night and a weird Vaudeville sideshow act," says Pumpkin.
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In creating Kabinet Theatre, The Wandering Marionettes are ushering in LA's Burner Wave ("burners" being artists who participate in Burning Man). Like Cirque Berzerk, Welder (who Pumpkin says he first saw play at 7 a.m. during the festival one year), Stilt Circus and others, they are bringing performances once confined to the Nevada desert into Los Angeles. When asked about the connection between Burning Man and the explosion of creativity within LA's nightlife, the members of the troupe laughed in unison.
"I think people are hungry for it now," answered Bell. "I don't want to say that people are trying to get away, it's not like people are hiding, they just for minute want to feel that things like this can exist, that fantasy can be real."
She pauses before concluding, "I still like believing in Santa."