Puppet Aslan is all frame and flaming mane. His structure is exposed, his body made of mesh fabric beneath an external skeleton. The effect is something like a leaf, or a stained-glass window. He is massive, 9 feet long and 8 feet tall, but looks light and agile and, well, the right word is probably “feline.”
He’s the centerpiece of this rehearsal at the Washington Ballet for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a first-ever collaboration between the ballet company and Imagination Stage. Many characters are represented both by an Imagination Stage actor and a Washington Ballet dancer; the former handles the speaking and singing, the latter expresses emotion through movement.
Aslan seems especially golden against the gray-and-white backdrop of the dance studio. “In Edmund’s place, I offer myself,” booms Michael John Casey, the actor/puppeteer voicing Aslan. “My life for his.”
“Narnia is mine!” decrees the White Witch. “Now swear, and raise your right paw.”
Aslan does. He sits back on his haunches and lifts a paw. And then: “ROOOOOAAARRRR!”
He takes a mammoth leap forward, his 30 moving parts controlled by three actor/puppeteers — Betsy Rosen and Tracy Ramsay within him, like Jonah in the whale; Casey outside, rearing Aslan’s mighty head — who execute the choreography, pulling up his paws with hidden handles and bearing the weight of his body on child-carrier backpacks.
Aslan arcs through the air. The queen’s soldiers descend. He is attacked. He falls to the ground. He sprawls out on the floor. One assailant grabs Aslan’s tail and jerks it back — “Chong!” Van Wyk calls out to the aggressor. “Not so hard.”
The tugger releases the tail with a quick, out-of-character “Sorry!” as the White Queen circles behind the beast, lifts a dagger high above her head, and plunges it into Aslan’s heart.
* * *
When you think about it, of course Aslan is impossible.
It’s impossible that this 40-pound contraption made partly of Lycra, nylon string and bent aluminum poles could represent not just any lion but The Lion, Aslan, the mythological martyr. Aslan, who in the allegorical vision of C.S. Lewis is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Aslan, who exists in that mystical space between human and animal, between earthly and ethereal.
“Aslan [is] quasi-spiritual,” said Van Wyk. “There’s something magical about him, something outside of normal time and space.”
Van Wyk’s research, like the puppet he designed, straddled fact and fantasy. He watched National Geographic videos and observed lions at a zoo. (“They were always sleeping,” he said. “But then you have a great view of their paws.”) He studied the artwork of Peter Paul Rubens and illustrator Arthur Rankin.