FOR KHADIJA TARIYAN '11, it was love at first sight.
She and the other performers for the new $35 million musical were assembled in the mezzanine of the Broadway Theatre where they were to meet the show’s star. As the curtain rose on the stage below, revealing him, Tariyan burst into tears as the rest of the cast cheered, whooped and hugged.
There was King Kong, a massive 2.1-ton puppet—20 feet tall in full fury—moving toward center stage in a formidable knuckle walk, roaring with basso strength and staring at the cast with those dark, deep, glistening eyes.
Ah, the eyes.
“Once Kiko starts looking at you, it’s over,” Tariyan said during a recent break in rehearsals and referring to the nickname the cast has given the big ape—using the first two letters of each of the title words. “I love Kiko. I really do.”
Tariyan is one of 10 athletic, agile puppeteers who move the giant silverback ape with their bodies, ropes and rigging. Three other puppeteers work the facial and other body movements animatronically from a soundproof “voodoo booth” in the back of the balcony, using joysticks and pedals that operate motors and hydraulics inside Kong’s steel-skeleton body and carbon fiber skull.
At 5-foot-3 and 114 pounds, Tariyan is one of two women onstage puppeteers—who also sing, dance and act as part of the ensemble when Kong is not around.
“I can’t wait until we take our bows and we take off our hoods and the audience sees there are two women who have been operating Kiko,” Tariyan said.
At Connecticut College, Tariyan studied dance under choreographer and Professor of Dance David Dorfman. After a stint teaching dance at Conn following her graduation, Tariyan landed a gig in the off-Broadway production and tour of “Fuerza Bruta,” an interactive sensory spectacle that tapped into her physical grace, strength and aerial artistry. That was followed by a gig in “The Wiz Live” and last year’s audition for “King Kong,” which opened on Broadway Nov. 8.
Every single movement by the giant ape is carefully choreographed in painstaking detail.
“I work his back left foot a lot in the beginning of the show,” Tariyan said. “I also help on his elbow and I’m on his back a lot.”
The challenges for Tariyan include not only demanding physical feats but also rushing in and out of costume. “We have to be able to get into a dress or suit and tie and be able to dance at the same level as members of the rest of the ensemble,” she said.
But manipulating Kong is a special activity that taps into Tariyan's empathy.
“A lot of times we take on the emotion of what Kiko is going through and we feel what he is feeling,” she said. “The second act really puts me in an extremely emotional state, especially when I launch off his shoulder. That’s the time where one of the planes comes to attack him and shoot him down off the Empire State Building. I’m the force that raises his hand against the plane and it feels like I’m the one who protects him.”
Riding on the tall back of Kong is as much a mental challenge as a physical one, she says. “You stand on top of his shoulder and you see how high you are just before the launch and you’re thinking, ‘Well, this is live theater and anything can happen right now.’ If you’re waiting up there too long too many questions start entering your head.”
Then comes her Kong “high.”
“But then you take off into the air and you’re in full flight and you’re now thinking, ‘This is the best thing ever.’ Then you land and it’s like, ‘OK, get me right back on him.’”
By Frank Rizzo, excerpted from an article originally published by Hearst Connecticut Media Group.