“PETRUSHKA” by OLNEY BALLET THEATRE by Luella Christopher

OLNEY BALLET THEATRE’S “PETRUSHKA” AND OTHER WORKS: PIONEER PAIRING OF MUSICAL COMPOSITION AND CHOREOGRAPHY IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.*

May 24, 2014

Sandy Spring Friends Performing Arts Center

Sandy Spring, Maryland

 

“Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky (1911) poses one of the happiest associations of music and choreographic drama in the lexicon. Stravinsky was approached in Geneva by noted impresario Serge Diaghilev to play his sketches for “Rite of Spring”. Instead, Stravinsky launched into two pieces for this “Konzertstuck” for piano and orchestra.   An enchanted Diaghilev sought to expand them into a ballet, recruiting Alexandre Benois (just departed from Ballet Russes) to design the scenario and decor.

The musical genius of Stravinsky evidenced in “Petrushka” lay in his scoring of individual instruments or small groups of instruments as stand-alone “voices”. Flute, trumpet, English horn and bassoon develop their own musical themes without tonal blending, the predominant Wagnerian-style orchestration method of the time. Extracted from amorphous blended sound, these individual instruments create a “psychological mood” distinguishing the main characters of the ballet. And what a story it is!

From the sprawling “picture painting” of a winter street fair in 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia to the “stage within a stage”, Carolina Ballet Theatre artistic director Hernan Justo grafts the Diaghilev-Stravinsky-Benois collaboration onto a newer setting endearingly true to much of Michel Fokine’s original choreography. Redefining it to reach the OBT audiences’ many children, Justo enlists a trio of Olney Ballet Theatre (OBT) director Patricia Berrend’s very young dancers as introductory “Dolls” and intersperses them with visually and technically alluring “Gypsies” and “Fancy Townspeople”.

The festival focuses on the feisty living puppets introduced by a bearded Wizard with a fetish for the flute (Tim Fox , OBT faculty). Male puppets – brooding “Moor” (Matthew Harvey) and foppish “Petrushka” (Peter Base) – compete for the affections of “Ballerina Doll” (Allison Cannon or Sydney Colopy). Not to be outdone within opening segments for the larger corps are the Harlequinesque “Actress” (Leah Noland or Lily Wheatley) and “Actor” (Martin Justo, son of Carolina Ballet Theatre’s artistic director). Principals Base and Harvey also appear courtesy of Carolina Ballet Theatre.

Petrushka and Moor sequentially partner Ballerina Doll and carry her aloft in floor-grazing piques. Petrushka collapses in dismay. To tinkling upper register piano keys, he rises and strides forward slowly, almost in place. The sequence recalls a signature movement of the 20th century’s peerless mime, Jean-Louis Barrault, who plays Baptiste in the exquisite 1800’s period piece “Les Enfants du Paradis” (France, 1945; all-time film favorite of this author).

Meanwhile, Ballerina Doll acts oblivious, her arms bent at the elbow and thrust upward at shoulder level. Petrushka tentatively registers a peck on her cheek and catches random kisses that Ballerina Doll lofts in mid-air. Alone with knees trembling, Petrushka reverts to his persona of deflated clown. This tortured title role provided a vehicle in the original version for the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, with Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina Doll, Alexandre Orlov as the Moor and Enrico Cecchetti as the Wizard. (A fond remembrance is due Mikhail Baryshnikov’s wistful interpretation of Petrushka in American Ballet Theatre’s production from the 1970’s.)

Darkening bassoon music shifts to the Moor in his lair, endeavoring to open a coconut. He bounces the coconut, squeezes it between his heels, then scratches his head. Moor then tries to bust it open on his knees, juggles a bit, but scratches his head again. Finally, he pounds the coconut repeatedly and kicks it away. Ballerina Doll enters, blowing on a toy trumpet. This delights the Moor. A tenuous duet to bassoon, buttressed by trumpet and flute, gives him a chance to spring for an embrace.   Frightened Ballerina Doll is hoisted by the Moor in a dramatic shift marked by blaring French horns. Their duet continues until Petrushka rushes in to save her. Moor pushes him offstage, laughing wickedly.

“Russian Men” – Robert Jones, Alvaro Palau (appearing courtesy of Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company) and Edward Urwin – usher in the closing village scene. Female festival-goers execute fancy footwork, including a series of fouettes and feathered stag leaps tossed off by the “Carnival Devil” (Allison Cannon or Madeline Jazz). The three younger Dolls are also dragged onstage one last time. Petrushka and Moor interrupt the scene in a duel that ends when Petrushka is slain with a scimitar wielded by the Moor. Ballerina Doll watches briefly but follows the Moor through the curtains of the “stage within a stage”. Everyone crowds around the center to discern what just happened. They back away as Wizard snatches from the pileup what is surely only a lifeless puppet made of straw and sawdust.

Yet, to soulful trumpet strains from offstage, a jubilant Petrushka returns with his companion puppets. “We didn’t want to scare the kids in the audience,” dancer Base later explained to this writer. Is Petrushka alive? Was it all a RUSE? He may not be the distant ghost of Fokine’s original choreography. Nonetheless, Justo’s Petrushka – in a formidable final moment center-stage – gesticulates wildly and ultimately triumphs over his doomed existence.

“Petrushka” constituted merely the second half of OBT’s May 24th program! The first half revealed a feast of choreographic riches as well. Works by two former luminaries of Washington Ballet – John Goding and Choo San Goh – were offered and staged by OBT director Patricia Berrend. Somewhat similar in their juxtaposition of modern idioms with neo-Classical style, Goding’s “Festive Overture” (music by Shostakovitch) features ensembles within a large ensemble. Attired in dainty rose or mint short skirts, the female dancers perform allegro (fast) movements distinguished by grand pas de chat in place (cat steps), ེechappes, grand jetes and grand battements. They move sleekly through diagonal lines which morph to six vertical lines downstage to upstage. Rapid-fire tours de chaines(turns in a chain-style) and runs that steer from diagonals to center-stage bring the work to a dramatic conclusion. The demanding technique is superbly executed by Berrend’s talented dancers.

“Octet Plus Four” (piano concerto by Prokofiev rendered without pause), represents one of the oldest works in the vast repertoire of the gifted Singapore-born Choo San Goh. Premiering in 1975 at a workshop of the Het (Dutch) National Ballet, the piece looks as fresh and “modern”as it did forty years ago. A decade later, Washington Ballet (WB) founder Mary Day recruited Goh to be resident choreographer and eventually associate artistic director of the company. Patricia Berrend, as a former member of the Washington School of Ballet faculty, has bestowed the legacy of these two choreographers’ works, as well as others that preserve WB’s repertoire, on OBT. She stages Goh’s piece for eight women and four men – Peter Base, Matthew Harvey and Martin Justo of Carolina Ballet Theatre and Alvaro Palau of Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company.

Like Balanchine (a marked influence on both choreographers), the ballet delivers bombast by offsetting simple walks and runs with jumps in second (open) position, brisk stands on pointe in second position, soutenus on flat feet and even sudden sideways glances, the latter revealing Goh’s flair for humor. He capitalizes on visual and rhythmic counterpoint by using unexpected gestures and rapid-fire movements such as jetes over the floor-bound men, rotated wrists, developpes with flexed feet and arms alternating in windwill-style with sharp, almost robotic angles. Even the curtain calls of any single dancer evince a pastiche of earlier Balanchine poses adapted by the two choreographers, bent knee crossed over standing leg.

The evening’s buffet of fusion (ballet, modern and ethnic) was rounded out with “Reflections” by choreographer Aaron Jackson, premiered at the recent Youth America Ground Prix Finals Competition and the Clog Dance from “La Fille Mal Gardེe” (music by Hertel), “oldest” ballet in the Western repertoire and vehicle for choreographer Marius Petipa staged by Patricia Berrend. Still another diversion in genre emanated from the enchanting contributions of Elena Indrokova Jones’ Four Seasons Dancers. The ensemble mounted “Kazachok” and “Horovod”: the first hoisting bodies in Russian-style jumps and the second presenting female dancers, costumed in blue-embroidered floor-length white skirts, who glide continuously as though attached to the surface of a carousel.

A thoroughly professional and satisfying evening of dance for a Memorial Day weekend, worthy of much larger audiences of diehard balletomanes and supporters from the Metro D.C. region’s performing arts community!

 

Copyright © 2014 by Luella Christopher*

Editor’s Note:

The author, Dr. Christopher, relays that at seven years of age, she performed her first key solo role as the Ballerina Doll in “Petrushka”, sans puppet-partners. Staged by Toni Intravaia (now in her nineties and still teaching at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale), Luella’s “debut” was recounted in great detail for many years by scholar and proud father David Alfred Christopher.

Polyphonic dissonances of Stravinsky and other 20th century composers from Hindemith to Bartok became lifelong passions of the author – evidenced in a 1974 Choral Arts Society “parts rehearsal” for female voices. “Lu” (nickname ascribed by director Norman Scribner) reportedly was the only singer who sight-read the entire score to Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” that day. Something about that counterpoint and syncopation . . .

Dr. Christopher can occasionally be spotted with her vintage handmade Alexander French horn, playing the addendum to the opening bassoon soliloquy of the Berceuse from Stravinsky’s “Firebird”. Superb acoustics in the nave of her church compensate for lack of currency in the wind instrument repertoire and performance skills. Stay tuned, though: it’s never too late.
Review commissioned and published by IsItModern? © 2014