A Legacy of a Thousand Dancing Strings

Igor Fokin's puppets entranced children and traced smiles on harried commuters faces

By 5:30 in the afternoon hundreds of people passing through Harvard Square are homeward bound. Most are unsmiling, hurried, not likely to be diverted from the race to dinner and the nightly news.

Then, like a firefly in the corner of an eye, they spot Igor Fokin. Get-me-home trances disappear. People stop irresistibly. On the pavement at Mr. Fokin's feet, a grapefruit-sized puppet named Doo Doo with a flute nose dangles and wiggles on strings.

Dozens of adults and a few children have gathered in a semi-circle, faces beaming, some with mouths open as Fokin sends the big-eyed creature up a little girl's arm to gently touch her cheek. She wiggles and grins, totally captured by delight.

Above the noise of the traffic, a battery-powered tape recorder plays Russian folk music. For the next half-hour, Fokin holds the crowd in place like Velcro with a dozen of his hand-made puppets including a pair of bulging acrobats named Grecia and Grisha; Satchmo, complete with trumpet and white handkerchief to wipe his brow; two loose jointed skeletons; Petrucia, who plays the guitar and dances; a blustering Russian samurai; and Egor, who plays the accordion.

Behind Fokin's street performance is a sign announcing "Wooden Horse Puppet Theater. St. Petersburg, Russia." Next to the sign, a wicker basket for all displays of green appreciation, please. Fokin, from St. Petersburg, arrived in Cambridge in l993 after a route through Europe. Before perestroika, he lived a hardscrabble life in St. Petersburg trying to keep his underground hand puppet theater alive.

Street theater was banned then, and like so many young Russians who would not publicly support Communism, he lived virtually without money, sleeping in the theater.

"I was eating bread and tea all the time," he says in broken English, broken further by much laughter. "This kind of traditional theater was lost 60 years ago. We did hand puppets on the street, then ran away," he says.

Trained under the last master of the pre-revolutionary Russian Marionette Theater in Russia, Fokin feels his is one of the last guardians of an ancient tradition. Since his arrival, he has established himself as one of New England's best-known folk performers. He has been granted a rare immigrant visa as a person of "extraordinary ability and talent."

During the beginning of perestrioka in l986, Fokin and friends headed for a big square in St. Petersburg to perform. "The first big one," he says, laughing. "Fifteen police come and say, 'Hello guys, what are you doing?' We say, 'It is Russian and Italian festival. It's OK.' They don't know what to do because perestroika is breaking down everything, and there is no law about puppets. Huge crowd gathers and we do puppets."

Fokin first came to Cambridge with a theater troupe. As he walked through the bustling ease of Harvard Square and saw other street performers, he felt his puppets would be welcomed here. He returned months later and drew crowds the first time he sent his puppets into action.

What attracts the crowds is the smooth skill and gentleness that Fokin sends through the strings to the little dancing figures. With floppy nonchalance, he takes the audience into his illusion without a word. He makes them not hear the passing cars, forget cyberspace, and put aside their troubles for a few wondrous minutes.

He moves the puppets into the arms and laps of children. The old Russian woman with a tiny broom brushes their feet. Wielding a harmless sword, the blustering Russian samurai duels with the nearest finger. A clownish puppet has a head that springs up suddenly like a jack-in-the-box, making everybody jump and laugh.

"He is so charming about it," says a father with a small son. "You can't help but laugh." Carolyn Cohen, sitting with Ella Dershowitz, age 6, says, "He makes it all so endearing and wonderful."

"I go underwater," says Fokin about his feelings as he performs. "I go into another world. I can't control this stuff, so I just get close to the people and touch them through the puppets."

Children write him letters naming their favorite puppets. "Family from Minnesota writes to me and says, 'Come to Minnesota and stay with us," says Fokin, laughing. At one performance someone dropped a $100 dollar bill in the wicker basket.

Fokin performs at festivals, businesses, and birthday parties. He performed in Atlanta during the Olympics, and last year the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications made a documentary of him. But what delights Fokin is seeing the same people come again and again to see him perform. "This country gives me everything," he says. "I was born again here."

With him are his wife and three children, the last born less than two weeks ago. While he would like to perform more often in St. Petersburg, a changing Russia makes it difficult.

"Lots of crime on the streets," he says. "Guys come to me and say, 'We will protect you from the others.' "

At his comfortable apartment in nearby Belmont, Fokin shows the details of carving each puppet made of linden wood, turning each one carefully to reveal how the cotton strings are attached, the leather shoes fastened to Satchmo, and how the metal joints of the arms and legs are made. "These are my babies," he says. "They need me and I need them."

When someone lifts the skirt of the old Russian woman to see the knee joints, Fokin says with mock seriousness, "She doesn't like that."

In Russia, before perestroika, Fokin says he always hoped that one day he would be successful with his puppets. "I was always planning, planning, planning," he says. "Now, its OK to live without plans. I am comfortable now and making new puppets."

* Three days after the interview for this article, Mr. Fokin passed on. A memorial fund has been set up for his family at the Belmont Savings Bank, 2 Leonard Street, Belmont Center, Belmont, MA. 02178

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