Following Unsuk Chin's excursions into street theatre (Gougalon), pantomime (cosmigimmicks), and street art (Graffiti), the orchestral work Mannequin – Tableaux vivants for orchestra is the composer's first referring to dance. It could be likened to an 'imaginary choreography', reflecting as it does a fascination for the movement potential of the human body and its expressive capabilities, with a special stress on high-energy physicality. It is highly gestural music intended to be danced, but 'without feet', as it were; a particular inspiration came from the great choreographers' and dancers' pursuit of making the impossible appear possible, of defying natural physical laws; in short: their ability to challenge perceptions of time and space. The work has no relation whatsoever to the codified structures of classical ballet; instead, it explores extreme contrasts of colour, speed and gesture with a constant tension between forces.
Mannequin tells a story, though neither in the form of a linear narrative nor in the manner of illustrative programme music: the line between dreams and reality is being crossed in a surreal manner, with the main themes of the scenario being problems of perception and of personal identity. It is freely based on the fantastical novella The Sandman, written by German writer, composer, music critic, lawyer, cabaret artist and draughtsman E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). As a writer, he was rejected by his contemporaries: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Sir Walter Scott, among many others, called Hoffmann's fiction 'sick', insinuating that he should undergo medical treatment. Posthumously, however, Hoffmann has been recognized as the master of the uncanny and the ambiguous, influencing figures as diverse as Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch. The Sandman might well be Hoffmann's most forward-looking and daring creation: in this almost magical realist story, the author constantly leaves the reader unsure of what is actually happening and why, and it is possible to be read in a number of (mutually exclusive) ways.
Nathanael, the young protagonist in The Sandman, seems torn between delusions and reality and is not conforming to society. But whether it is him who is 'mad', or the society around him, is left open as well as so much more. This ambiguity and relativism much horrified the author's contemporaries but it is precisely these aspects, combined with Hoffmann's experimental and highly elliptical style, that explain the story's modernity and its spell. Many contradictory interpretations have been written about this labyrinthine novella, but most of them miss the point by forcing it into a Procrustean bed of either-or by clearly distinguishing good and evil, real and unreal. Indeed, it would be senseless to attempt to find a moral or a clear-cut plot, for it is precisely his "wisdom of uncertainty" and his exploration of "the essential relativity of things human" (Milan Kundera) where Hoffmann's achievement lies: The Sandman hauntingly illuminates what a subjective affair reality is.
Mannequin consists of four movements. The first two movements, respectively titled Music Box – Fever Dream and Sandman and Child, refer to Nathanael's childhood and how his nanny used to instil terror in him by a cautionary tale about the Sandman who steals misbehaving children's eyes and feeds them to his offspring who live in the crescent moon. Nathanael associates the Sandman's figure with a half-mythical and sinister person named Coppelius, who seems in some way connected with the decline of Nathanael's family and who continues to haunt the adult Nathanael's life in the guise of a number of grotesque 'doppelgangers'. The third movement, Dance of the Clockwork Girl, refers to Olimpia, a female life-size automaton, with whom Nathanael falls in love, without realizing its true nature until it is being destroyed during a fight between its inventor Spalanzani and Coppola, a dubious seller of optical aids (both apparently being doubles of Sandman/Coppelius). The title of the last movement, The Stolen Eyes, refers to the ubiquitous 'eye leitmotif': throughout Hoffmann's tale, Sandman and his 'doppelgangers' (Spalanzani, Coppelius and Coppola) are stealing, inventing or selling eyes – a motive that, similarly to the title of Chin's work (Mannequin), might of course also be understood allegorically.
Mannequin was jointly commissioned by the Southbank Centre, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The work was given first performances by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain under Ilan Volkov's direction at Sage Gateshead and at the Southbank Centre in London.