Meet Basil Twist
The MacArthur Genius who brings a magical tree to life in Cinderella
Basil Twist, a puppeteer, defines that term broadly—as bringing inanimate objects to life. His genius (and he has the receipts, earning a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015) is noticing the way objects and materials move and flow, and drawing upon these characteristics to transform them. It takes a creative eye to realize, for example, that a swath of silk could billow into a carriage or that projections could animate a tree, making it wave and sway and seemingly “dance.”
Twist grew up in San Francisco, the child and grandchild of puppeteers. His mother founded a group of puppeteers who performed at hospitals and schools, and his maternal grandfather, Griff Williams, was a big band leader who included puppets that resembled Cab Calloway and Harry James in his shows. Twist made puppets as a kid, grew out of it in high school, returned to puppetry as a college student in New York City, and was admitted to the three-year program at France’s national school for puppeteers in Charleville-Mézières. He’s the only American to have graduated from the program.
Back in New York, his breakout work, Symphonie Fantastique, originated when he found a discarded fish tank. After repairing it, Twist experimented with the different ways fabric and other materials like feathers and bubbles moved in water. For the show, he upgraded to a 500-gallon tank and, similar to a choreographer, set abstract movement to music, in this case Berlioz’ symphony.
Twist’s career has since exploded, and extends from Broadway shows to the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, on which he consulted for the underwater puppetry. On Broadway, Twist has contributed to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; Oh, Hello; The Addams Family, for which he won a Drama Desk Award; and the Pee-wee Herman Show. Additional work includes The Araneidae Show, Dogugaeshi, Petrushka, Behind the Lid, Arias with a Twist, and Sister’s Follies, among others.
Symphonie Fantastique caught the eye of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and the two collaborated on Cinderella for San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, The Winter’s Tale for the The Royal Ballet, and The Nutcracker for The Joffrey Ballet. In dance, Twist has also contributed to Darkness and Light with Pilobolus; Wonderboy with The Joe Goode Dance Company, Underground River with Jane Comfort & Company and Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, a Tulsa Ballet and BalletMet collaboration. His maverick Rite of Spring, a ballet without dancers, premiered in 2013 at UNC Chapel Hill and went on in 2014 at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.
Even with all of these credentials, the tree in Cinderella© has particular meaning for Twist. For this production he was tasked with developing the tree into a believable character in the ballet. Twist told SF Ballet program writer Cheryl Ossola that the mechanics weren’t difficult, but “you get to the moment when you’re choreographing for the tree, to the music, and you’re saying, ‘Now it makes this shape; now it’s that shape.’ You feel the tree as you would a dancer. That’s when it comes alive.
“This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he continues. “And the tree growing onstage … it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” Twist is thrilled, he says, to have “my own tree on the same stage.”
Cinderella© by Christopher Wheeldon
Cinderella runs March 31–April 8, 2023
Header image: San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella© // © Chris Hardy