The Ballard brings spectacular American puppet modernism to Storrs

Students and community members attend the the opening of a new exhibit at the Ballard called American Puppet Modernism: The Early 20th Century on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. The exhibit runs through July 1. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

Dr. John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute, clearly loves his job. He was jovial last night, talking extensively about what makes puppetry important. “Every culture around the globe and all continents has some form of puppet mask or object tradition,” Bell explained. “Those forms of performance are used to tell the most important stories, maybe of religious, political or cultural value, some with sex and violence. You can learn a lot.”

That’s the thing about the Ballard Institute: most students see it as just “the puppet place.” Tonight’s exhibition proved that puppetry is about more than just puppets; it’s a form of handheld history. “American Puppet Modernism: The Early 20th Century” opened last night, complete with refreshments and a tour. Works from esteemed artists like Ralph Chessé, Marjorie Batchelder and Tony Sarg are on display, hanging from strings attached to the ceiling to appear life-like.

The staff of both the Ballard and the UConn puppet arts program beamed with pride through the entire 90-minute showcase. Bart Roccoberton, professor and director of the puppet arts program, seemed to be the most ecstatic of all.

“I’m excited by what I’m seeing. American puppetry developed in a time period that’s being represented here, you know,” Roccoberton said. “Until this time period, we had international companies coming in from England and Germany, and with the 20s and 30s, all that information started to be developed by American artists. So this is the beginning of American puppetry that we’re seeing here.”

Roccoberton pointed to one of the more unique works shown, Alexander Calder’s symphonic drama “Socrate,” which is complete with three elements including a red disc, a vertical rectangle (white on one side, black on the other) and a set of interlocking hoops, all on a blue background.

“It’s objects being used to tell a story. We define puppetry rather broadly. It’s not just human or animal characters, it’s objects that are performed to bring an idea to an audience,” Roccoberton said. “This tells of the death of Socrates, as his demise comes about, this rectangle was spun over from its light, alive side to its black, deathly side.”

“American Puppet Modernism” will run until July 1. The Puppet Performance Series at the Ballard starts this Saturday, Feb. 24, with “Plastic” by Puzzle theater at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Daniel Cohn is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at