Originally the protagonist of Carlo Collodi’s book set in 19th Century Italy, and then the eponymous star of the Disney classic, Pinocchio is a fairytale character that many of us remember from our childhood. Renowned theatrical choreographer Jasmin Vardimon has adopted this puppet’s plotline, aiming to transform his story into a physical theatre production that imaginatively explores the Italian tale’s meditation upon what it means to be human.

Vardimon has set herself a difficult task, as attempting to explain the narrative of Pinocchio is tricky enough with words, let alone through contemporary dance. Pinocchio – a puppet – is brought to life by a fairy; works in a marionette theatre; runs away with a fox and a cat; falls into the hands of assassins; runs away to the Land of Toys; turns into a donkey and gets swallowed by a whale. How these events were conceived is a mystery, and at times Vardimon’s retelling of these confusing events can lack clarity. However, it is possible that this obscurity may be due to the complexity of Collodi’s original narrative as opposed to Vardimon’s dramaturgy. The key points of the plotline are explained by a narrator (formed by several pairs of illuminated hands that creatively assemble and dissipate to form the resemblance of a face) which, along with the performer’s abilities to embody intense emotions, assist the audience in following the gist of the story. Yet some details are lost in what seems to be a creative power struggle between portraying the narrative and physically exploring thematic concepts. One such concept appears to be the enormity of emotion – relating to the fact Pinocchio must experience a plethora of feelings before he can become a ‘real boy’. The moment in which the marionette theatre ring master gets so angry his arms extend to form a gargantuan limb (created by a collection of dancers attaching their arms to his, the rest of their forms obscured in black) seems to reflect this notion of the overpowering force of sensation, however this principle is not repeated often enough to make it a motif.

The stage is densely populated with yellow, geometric structures that are suspended at a variety of heights and angles, and centre stage is a large tipi. This imaginative, timeless set (designed by Guy Bar-Amotz and Vardimon herself) is one of the main features of Vardimon’s Pinocchio. Not only does it give the production unique aesthetic appeal, it is also interactive, transforming and adapting to facilitate various parts of the story, and forming the basis for much of the action onstage. A standout moment is when the centre stage tipi opens up to reveal a wild and wacky marionette theatre. Aerial ropes are lowered down and attached to performer’s ankles, wrists and even hair, and begin to pull their limbs in different directions to form a manipulative puppet show.

Whilst this dynamic staging is charming and impressive, at times it feels as if the choreography is more preoccupied with utilising its surroundings than being creative, considering movement in its own right. Moments – such as Gepetto swinging on a boat searching for Pinocchio – are visually stunning due to the high levels of production, yet the movement interactions with the set are largely mimetic. Even more choreographed sections that are not focused on relating to the staging lack originality and variation. The blue fairy’s solos are restricted to languid arm flourishes, and Pinocchio seems to perform the same sequence of “knee runs” and Cossack kicks for the entire piece. However, there are some moments of physical flair that hark back to Vardimon’s impressive physical theatre oeuvre. There are phalanxes of performers in unison (including an army of oppressed donkeys) and the moment in which the cast is controlled and tossed around the stage in time to the cracks of a whip is reminiscent the nationalistic flag waving in Vardimon’s 2005 production Park.

It’s elaborate, magical, and at times confusing, but Vardimon’s Pinocchio delivers moments of charm and imagination. Although at times the movement can appear simplistic and repetitive, the overall visual appeal and emotional intensity of Pinocchio makes it an intriguing production, which retells a ludicrous, idiosyncratic tale that may – even with all the intentional clarity in the world – never make sense.

Pinocchio is running at Sadler’s Wells until October 25.

Photo: Tristram Kenton