By Anna Weltner
Lili Noden's is a world of friendly griffins , of dragons and knights, of insects that tower like delicate-winged giants. When she walks, her feet don't always touch the ground.
Noden is the founder of Dragon Knights, a San Diego-based troupe of stiltwalkers. The Dragon Knights have performed all over the world, though they may be best known to Central Coast residents for their regular appearances at the Paso Robles Festival of the Arts, which descends on downtown Paso the last weekend in May. So if you, while taking in the landscape paintings and crafts displays of the North County festival, have ever gazed up at the iridescent Dragonfly or the looming Flower Lady and thought, "I wonder what her story is," this is for you.
Born in the town of Saint-Palais in southwestern France, Noden says she doesn't recall the first time she saw someone walk on stilts. An artist, craftswoman, and performer from a very young age, Noden left school at 15 to work for a theater company, where she began learning the ropes of lighting, props, makeup, costuming and publicity. This early experience led to work with several major companies in Paris, where she pursued theater at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq and the Cours Simon drama school, in addition to studying under a master stiltwalker. she later joined The Cirikli Stilt birds, a group of stiltwalkers who performed astride enormous wooden puppet birds-a sight every bit as bizarre as it sounds.
When in 1994, Cirikli was invited by Disney to perform regularly at Epcot, Noden moved to Florida, where she lived for the next five years.
"I was not speaking a word of English, "Noden recalls in a phone interview. "It was very difficult. By the time I got to California, it was better, but people still didn't understand me."
In 2000, Noden moved to San Diego. This time around, she was truly alone, without the security of an established troupe or the promise of regular work, as she'd had when employed by Disney. She started performing in Balboa Park, Seaworld, and the San Diego Zoo, in addition to giving lessons in her craft. She also began to hiring performers to join the newly formed Dragon Knights.
The troupe comprises five to six employees during the year and around 20 during the summer months, when the Dragon Knights' performance scheduled is at its peak. When trying out a potential Dragon Knight, Noden says, her first concern isn't necessarily the performer's skill or previous experience.
Rather, new recruits are taken in when, Noden says , "I feel like they have something... I see they have a good soul."
Everything else, it seems, can be taught. One of the first tricks is walking, Noden explains, is to remember to lift your knees. Another is to get used to the idea of one's legs being several feet longer. Each time she trains a new student, Noden says, her instructions are the same:
"He has to forget he had feet. The feet become the bottom of the stilts. Find the new feet! Evaluate the distance, and let the brain realize that." That doesn't mean look down. "Don't look at the floor, or you'll fall," she cautions.
Since some new performers can go years before their first crash, the Knights often celebrate a performer's first fall, like a rite of passage.
Fortunately , Noden says, the wooden puppets the performers typically "ride" (or rather wear, while giving the appearance of riding) also protect the stiltwalkers from injury in the event of a fall.
The puppets, of course, are a story unto themselves, each with its own unique personality. The dragon, named Baraka, tends to frighten small children-but here they have chance to overcome their fear, as this fierce-looking adversary can be tamed by those with the courage to try. Then there's Corto, the playful pink flamingo. The Dragonfly is the most graceful of all, requiring the performer to dance on stilts. Gryphon, a mischievous bird-animal with cartoonish eyes placed forward to convey friendliness and curiosity, is a character Noden created for her daughter, Lucille. (From Noden's description, Lucille, now 11, seems to have inherited her mother's active imagination: Noden recalls arriving in her workshop to find food all over the puppet's face's. "Every night she was feeding the puppets, "she laughs.)
It's interesting to note that the art of stiltwalking -now so varied as to include elements of dance, theater, puppetry and acrobatics-was in fact born of agrarian necessity. In Sri Lanka, fishermen still use stilts to walk through the surf. In Landes, an area not far from Noden's birthplace, stilts were originally used by shepherds to navigate the often-marshy terrIan of the area. The extra few feet of elevation also helped them oversee their flock. Stilts were also a common sight in Namur, Belgium, dating back to medieval times. Like Landes, the terrain of Namur was often unfit for walking, as the many rivers around the city were prone to flooding. The everyday necessity apparently led to a new sport: stilt jousting. In 2011, the city of Namur celebrated it's 600th year of stilt jousting competitions, in which the stilt jousters, or echasseurs in the regional dialect, use their stilts to try to knock one another off balance. the winner is presented with the Golden Stilt.
Its easy to see why stilts, wherever they're used for utilitarian purposes, are so quick to kindle the imagination. There's something otherworldly about the lanky sillhouette of a stiltwalker crossing a marshy field, or seeming to walk atop the surf. There's something unhuman, too, in the swiftness of the stiltwalker's gait, the effortless length of this new stride, like a giant grasshopper or a tree with legs. From the ground, the stiltwalker seems almost sublime, barely touching the earth, head in the sky.