Princess on strings
He is not alone, but with a nice girl. There would seem to be nothing strange in this, however, there is a ‘but’— his partner is a mechanical puppet.
We are sitting in Sergey’s office. The gramophone begins to play and we hear Klavdiya Shulzhenko’s voice, close to us is an immobile blonde with grey eyes. She is a puppet-dancer. Her name is Elle, translated from the French meaning ‘she’. Her unusual name has an equally unusual story. Sergey begins the tale, “I served in the army in Mongolia where I fell ill with scurvy. My face swelled up and the doctors said I would need to have my teeth pulled out. I was lucky that nearby there was an international mission camp and a female French doctor started to treat me. When I felt better, I promised her that I would learn the French language. And that is why I gave the puppet her beautiful name.”
Sergey draws Elle closer to himself by means of a special belt around his waist. With a height of 165 centimetres and a weight of just 6.5 kg she is not easy to manage. The designer supports the ‘girl’ with his right hand, whilst with his left, he operates levers inside the puppet. The mechanism begins to turn and she puts one foot after the other, offers her hand, wriggles her fingers and nods her head. The puppet master explains how to make Elle to move, “Using my little finger I move the lever responsible for her feet, my index finger controls her right shoulder, my ring finger the left. The middle finger makes her head nod, while the thumb controls turns.”
At first sight, it is easy. I try but can make her do nothing. Without considerable careful preparation, even professional puppeteers cannot manage Elle. Representatives from the Czech theatre ordered several such mechanical puppets for their performances from Sergey, but when they saw how complex the puppets were to control, they asked for them to be simplified. He admits he is not a good businessman as far as the puppets are concerned, becoming too emotionally attached to them. He advised the Czechs to address to Chinese where everything is simple and cheap. He does not want the mechanisms to be simplified, his own training took twenty years to perfect, but the Czechs wanted to learn in a matter of days.
Sergey first began work on Elle in 1994 when he worked as a scene painter at the Gomel Regional Puppet Theatre. His magician friend asked Sergey to create an assistant for his act. To increase the effect they decided to bring her hands to life and used prosthetic hands to create this. The mechanisms to allow the puppet to move took Sergey two years to perfect. Friends looked at the creation and decided that such special hands needed beautiful feet. Just at that time, replicas of female feet appeared in shops, but all of them were unsuitable. It was necessary to mould one. “In the fifth year of working on the puppet the magician gave in and ordered an assistant from a different workshop,” Sergey sits his partner-puppet on the sofa and explains, “I was already so carried away by the process that I couldn’t stop.” The body of the ‘girl’ is made from organic glass. “It is because of my pride,” admits the puppet master. “I knew that the mechanism that would control Elle would turn out to be complicated and interesting. I wanted people to see it.”
To calculate the ideal model proportions, the designer began to look closely at actresses who ran into the workshop. Many perceived his interest as a sign of attention, and one of them even thought he wanted to marry her. He was forced to explain that the reason for his interest was a puppet. The actress appeared not to be offended, but did not return to the workshop. The head for Elle was found in a wig shop, in passing he noticed a mannequin with large tearful eyes. He asked the saleswoman what was wrong with it. She explained it had a defect and Sergey bargained to buy it, paying $50 in the end.
Six years ago, Elle was finished, and the designer decided to patent it in Belarus and Russia. Sergey recollects,” At that time I even did not imagine that the process would drag on for three years.” Initially he was told the Chinese had already patented the design, when he realized this was for the commonly found market toys, horse and cats, he worked harder to describe his invention in more detail, eventually succeeding.
Suddenly Elle starts to fall from the sofa, Sergey at once picks her up. She has only been dropped twice in twenty years, the last time with unfortunate results; she now has a large hole in her glass body. Sergey refuses to repair her, keeping the damage as evidence of what he terms his ‘disloyalty’ to the puppet. During an exhibition of puppets in the Vetka Museum, one of the visitors photographed her and put pictures on the Internet. People from Russia called Sergey and offered work for the puppet in a casino. She was to welcome visitors and give them tickets. Sergey began to get excited at the thought of earning large amounts of money from the doll, it was at this moment that she fell and was damaged! This curtailed his commercial ambitions, despite another interesting offer from a German firm who wanted to borrow the ‘live’ hand mechanism to make cheap prosthetic hands, but once they began to discuss the terms of a contract, the offer dried up.
Sergey has not earned money with the help of the doll, but has often become the centre of attention. “When I appear in the street with Elle to take photos, passers-by can’t take their eyes off her. We have learned to waltz, and now we are often invited to perform at concerts. Once I took her to Gomel University. In order to keep her clean I put an overall on her, hid her face and tied her hands, so it was more convenient to transport her. I put her on my shoulder, and coming in the opposite direction was a group of female students. One of them joked, this is what you have to do to young girls to get them to study at Gomel!”
There was an even more comical case when the designer tried to teach Elle to walk upstairs. One of his neighbours called Sergey’s wife Natasha, who is also an artist, to tell her he had brought another woman home!
Natasha has a relaxed attitude towards the puppet, who usually sits on a chair in the apartment and minds her own business. Friends think Sergey could take his creation to Hollywood and perhaps become rich, but he thinks he has everything he needs at home, including the pleasure of working with a skill he loves.
By Yekaterina Panteleeva