A couple of years ago, millions of YouTube watchers were shocked by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen’s video, shot on Canada’s Baffin Island, in which he filmed the last minutes of a starving polar bear’s life. The animal was searching for food in vain in a habitat that had changed dramatically as a result of the climate crisis. The photographer could not have intervened even if he wanted, as feeding polar bears is illegal in Canada. The video served as inspiration and starting point to Hungarian puppeteer-actor Domokos Kovács, graduate of University of Theatre and Film Arts Budapest, director-choreographer of the performance Do not feed the polar bears. Kovács teamed up with his former university classmate, Petra Nagy, to create an allegorical piece in which they reflect on our ecological and social crisis through puppetry, movement and contemporary dance. The result is an aesthetically pleasing performance that confronts us with the consequences of our neglect towards our planet in the most beautiful and heartbreaking ways.
Why did you choose movement as your primary means of expression for this topic?
Domokos Kovács: This is the theatrical language that I’m most interested in. I experiment with how puppetry and movement can interact and complement each other. I felt that this was also a very adequate choice of language for my chosen theme, as the issues that we talk about are truly elementary and visceral, just like dance itself. This two-minute video of the dying polar bear brought on so many associations to me, and I wanted to share my thoughts in a very stylised form.
Petra Nagy: At first I was very nervous, because I’m rather shy, and dance is a challenge for me. On the other hand, I adore puppetry: it is the language I understand and love doing. When Domokos told me about his concept I was thinking of stories and narration, but he wanted more abstract things. I wondered if our different points of views would collide – but since we know each other so well and connect easily, it took me only two days to tune into his abstract way of thinking and his movement language.
Rehearsals took an unusually long period of nine months – why?
DK: I wanted a prolonged rehearsal period from the beginning, where we work on the material for a few weeks, then let it rest for a while, then take it up again. I happened to have nine months to devote to this project, and I liked the metaphorical meaning of this, and the fact that I can dedicate this time to the intensive work on the piece. In the end, Petra was only available to rehearse for two and a half months, but I started with the preparations months earlier. Each month we shared a video on YouTube about our progress, and every month we focused on a different aspect of the performance: music, dramaturgy or the puppet.
The central puppet, which depicts the head of a bear, is made entirely of plastic waste. Where did it come from?
PN: Our visual designer, Zsófia Mihály-Geresdi, created a wonderful thing: a sculpture from a pile of rubbish. It consists of empty detergent bottles, residual Styrofoam and paper waste. One of the detergent bottles had a drop of liquid still left inside, which made the puppet smell incredible. I fell in love with this animal right away.
DK: Zsófia started working on the puppet during lockdown, and it is actually like her quarantine footprint: she only used rubbish that she and her family produced at home. You can also find boxes of takeaway Chinese food in it.
You also asked the public during the rehearsal period to collect plastic wrapping for you. How did they shape the performance?
DK: We used most of them for the set. The idea was that since we wanted to draw attention to the overuse of plastic, and it would have been quite hypocritical to buy or produce a lot of new plastic wrap for our bearskins. So we thought these should be made of recycled plastic as well, and we tried to spend on as few new things for the show as possible. Also, we invented a technique involving an iron to repair damaged plastic.
PN: One of the bearskins was donated by me: we bought a mattress, and I kept its wrapping for about a year, so that we can use it for the show! I was really proud of that.