The world is born. Lava flows and lightning cracks across the face of the earth, as shell-like translucent shapes shift slowly around the enormous globe. Soon, a cooling breeze arrives, and with it life: a mother bird, teaching its young the dance of flight for the first time. And that’s in just the first five minutes of Heather Henson’s Panther and Crane, one of the highlights of this weekend’s third annual Orlando Puppet Festival.

Ask Henson why of all places to plant a puppetry festival she chose Orlando and she laughs, insisting that the area has a “current of puppetry” (a puppet pulse, if you will), thanks largely to the local theme parks. She herself has had ties to the area ever since her family bought a house here in the early ’90s, around the time of Disney’s first attempt to merge with the Muppets.

Lately, Henson has been a more or less full-time resident thanks to preparations for Panther and Crane. The work, which combines puppetry with dance, music, video and sculpture, has been in development for several years. This production marks the third version, following performances in New York City and Asheville, N.C. The piece combines Henson’s fascination with the interaction between prop and performer to create art and her passion for the environment, which was evident in her 2007 Fringe production, Heart of Coal. Panther and Crane is inspired by the true-life story of scientists who bonded with endangered cranes and taught them to migrate using ultra-light planes (similar to the film Fly Away Home). That becomes the jumping-off point for an abstract exploration of the effect that encroaching development is having on the “dance of nature” that is Florida’s unique ecosystem.

Though the project is her vision, Henson is quick to credit her collaborators: Vandy Wood, associate director; David Jordan, the puppet builder; and choreographer Genevieve Bernard, who joined the project shortly before the premiere to coordinate flag dances and has now brought her Voci Modern Dance group in as an integral part of the show.

That “team spirit” applies to the Orlando Puppet Festival as a whole, which Henson co-produces with Jamie Donmoyer, a former Disney performer behind the long-running Puppet Potpourri shows. The Cashore Marionettes from Doylestown, Penn., and the Sandglass Theater from Putney, Vt., headline this year’s OPF. Both treat puppetry as a serious medium, using meticulous craftsmanship and exacting gesture to convey a full range of adult emotion. Speaking of “adult,” on Friday night at the festival Puppets From the Edge features a felt walk on the wild side. If you’re looking for more family fare, the Cupcake Kiddie Shows have you covered.

The official OPF kickoff is Friday’s Meet the Artists reception, followed by a screening of Genevieve Anderson’s film Too Loud a Solitude, a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of war-torn Prague, from the novella by Bohumil Hrabal. Henson produced the short through her Handmade Films; she calls herself a “reluctant producer,” but feels a responsibility to help gain exposure of other artists whose work excites her. Props from that and other Handmade films are already on display in the Gallery at Avalon Island as part of the pre-festival festivities, which also included John Tartaglia’s Oct. 18 performance. The Avenue Q star brought along friends from his Disney Channel show, Johnny and the Sprites, and shared stories with the packed house from his days as the youngest puppeteer ever to work on Sesame Street.

Henson has plenty of projects brewing between now and next year’s Orlando Puppet Festival, but the one that caught my ear is her idea for a sing-along showing of The Muppet Movie, complete with Rocky Horror-style audience participation and props. Sell me a ticket, as long as no one laughs at me when I cry during “The Rainbow Connection.”

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