“Petrushka” at the Clark Studio Theater
The New York Times, April 5, 2008
THEATER REVIEW | 'PETRUSHKA'
Hard-Hearted Dancers as Stravinsky’s Puppets
By RACHEL SALTZ
Basil Twist understands a thing or two about the uses of enchantment. “Puppets are magic,” he says in the notes to “Petrushka,” his wondrous, visually opulent puppet version of the Stravinsky-Fokine ballet at the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center. And he proceeds to show us why: puppets can fly or dance on their hands or float in midair, effortlessly ignoring the laws of gravity governing our too solid flesh.
First performed in 2001, this “Petrushka” also involves a conceptual sleight of hand. In the ballet dancers play puppets that come to life. In Mr. Twist’s version, puppets play puppets, and when they come to life, they dance. It works perfectly, plunging us directly into the story’s imaginative universe.
It’s a spectacle but a deliberately miniaturized one. The characters, pared down to just three — the sad, striving Petrushka; the Ballerina he loves; and the Moor she seduces — inhabit a small black box of a world, circumscribed by a filigreed gilt frame.
Stravinsky’s score, with its bright, stop-and-start melodies and dark undercurrents, has been downsized too. Adapted for two pianos, it’s played by Julia and Irina Elkina, identical twins whose pianos are neatly fitted together like yin and yang. Mr. Twist probably couldn’t resist the visual pun of twinning, an image that might put you in mind of Petrushka’s problem of identity: do I have a self if I’m made of wood and glue?
In Mr. Twist’s animist “Petrushka” the answer is yes; everything seems alive and in motion. Drums and stringed instruments appear and disappear out of the darkness. Sheer fabrics billow, and chickens scoot across the stage, linked like ducks in a shooting gallery. Even the onion-domed buildings are on the move.
And then there’s the dancing. Petrushka, in his puffy white shirt and harlequin pants, flops around like a loose-limbed rag doll. The muscled Moor, with nipple rings and gold eyes that pick up the light, moves with languorous ease when not practicing his kung fu-ish scimitar moves. And the tutued Ballerina, with her neatly articulated limbs, does, well, ballerina things, hovering over Petrushka’s head in an endless grand jeté or turning her body into a pencil — look, Ma, no hips! — in 180-degree vertical splits.
“Petrushka,” part of “New Visions: Stravinsky Onstage” in the Great Performers series, uses nine puppeteers, and you can sometimes hear them moving around. It’s homey and in keeping with the production’s low-tech, handmade quality, which evokes other spectacles of wonder, like magic lantern shows and silent movies by Méliès, in which heads can separate from bodies, and trains can run without tracks.
At one point large, disembodied hands take a turn in the spotlight, forming odd patterns and birdlike shapes. The effect resembles the kind of elemental animation that made early movie audiences gasp. Beautiful, sometimes surreal and ungraspable, Mr. Twist’s images work the same magic today.
“Petrushka” continues through April 13 at the Clark Studio Theater, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center; (212) 721-6500, lincolncenter.org.