Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The black magic of Basil Twist.

Puppets, as every child knows, are paradoxes.  Seemingly inert, artificial, even "dead," they can nevertheless appear more intensely alive than flesh and blood could ever hope to be.

Thus the long tradition of folk tales spun from the strings of marionettes - among them the sources of Stravinsky's Petrushka, which pirouettes perfectly on this sense of mystery.  The ballet leaps without warning or apology into a dimension of fantasy in which the puppets of a country carnival - the Pierrot-like Petrushka, his beloved Ballerina (below right), and the apple of her eye, the menacing Moor - come "alive" before our eyes (via real-life dancers), enacting their own variation of a classic love-triangle.  And as we watch the poignant struggles of Petrushka, we realize that emotionally - and perhaps even spiritually - we're puppets, too, buffeted by fate and manipulated constantly by needs and dreams over which we have no control. (Indeed, in Petrushka's calmly cruel folk idiom, death is the only release from slavery.)

Enter New Age puppeteer Basil Twist - who brings to the ballet the intriguing twist, if you will, of turning it back into a puppet show.  That's right: a ballet about "live" puppets - enacted by puppets.  Playing people who are playing puppets - who are, of course, somehow "people," too.

Dizzy yet?  Don't worry if you are; Twist never leans on these conundrums too heavily - his Petrushka floats closer to Punch and Judy than Pascal.  Indeed, if his version has a flaw, it's that all this metaphysical speculation doesn't get him very far in performance.  Huge, manipulative hands may constantly threaten Petrushka, but the ensuing focus on his existential rather than romantic dilemmas seems (oddly enough) to crush our identification with him.   It also somehow undermines the folk tale's (and music's) strange appeal to our faith in animism, which is central to the Russian mystical tradition. All in all, this was the least moving Petrushka I've seen - perhaps in no small part because Twist's design for the eponymous marionette is his least evocative work in the show (compare the puppet, below, to Nijinsky's original conception).  And it doesn't help matters that his Ballerina isn't just haughty but a little too bawdy.  In the end, Twist's version may be touching, but it's not heart-breaking - after all, his Petrushka's just a puppet.

You really have to add, though - what a puppet.  If it doesn't actually limn its thematic potential, this Petrushka still dazzles with its technique.  Twist works in a free-form update of the Japanese tradition of bunraku, in which marionettes are manipulated by puppeteers dressed in black (the better to melt into the background).  In Petrushka, this illusion often works almost perfectly - a glittering proscenium (at top) frames a mysterious "black box," in which perspective and gravity are defied, and all manner of surprising visions magically float.  Here the Ballerina can pirouette forever in mid-air, and a giant Russian bear (perhaps Twist's best effect) can loom out of nowhere, balance on a blood-red globe, and then disappear as quickly as it materialized.  Giant banners ripple through the void like spirits (or souls), and an entire carnival can be conjured by disembodied hands plucking musical instruments (at top) like some vision out of Disney's Fantasia.  Indeed, Twist often succeeds in evoking a kind of cinema made flesh; we first see Petrushka's puppet show in the distance, for instance, before we "zoom in" on it - and when the Moor finds his way home through the night, we "track" him through the dark.

Thus Petrushka succeeds spectacularly as pure fantasy (in a way, it seems to operate in relation to traditional puppet shows the way a movie like The Red Shoes does to ballet).  And for children, it may serve as an ideal introduction to the dance itself.  It does make for a short evening (which may, again, be good for the kids) - even though Twist opens with an abstract piece of whimsy set to Stravinsky's exquisitely contrapuntal "Sonata for Two Pianos."  This piece was diverting, but hardly at the imaginative level of Petrushka; Twist seemed to have something he wanted to say about suprematism (the Russian art movement that coalesced just after the premiere of the ballet) - perhaps something about abstraction conjuring a mystical reality in the same way puppets do?  I wasn't sure; the juxtaposition was rather oblique.  Oh, well - musically, the performance was still a great pleasure.  In what seemed like a nod to the evening's double-puppet dialectic, identical twins Julia and Irina Elkina played double-piano versions of both scores superbly - indeed, this Petrushka proved as delightful to hear as it was to see.  And you still have a chance to do both; it closes this weekend.

1 comment:

  1. Just a note: Part of the reason that Petrushka is more Mister Punch than Pierrot, is because the figure of Petrushka (despite the name) is the Russian adaptation of the Italian commedia character, Pulcinella, who is, in turn, also the ancestor of the British Mister Punch.