The spell of 'Petrouchka'

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday March 2, 2010
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<p>Katita Waldo and Ruben Martin in William Forsythe's <i>in<br>the middle, somewhat elevated. </i>Photo: Erik<br>Tomasson</p>

Katita Waldo and Ruben Martin in William Forsythe's in
the middle, somewhat elevated.
Photo: Erik

Petrouchka, which San Francisco Ballet is dancing on a mixed bill that runs through this Sunday, is one of the legendary ballets of the great Ballets Russes. Its score by Stravinsky is one of the great tone-poems of the era just before World War I, so colorful and fascinating and changeable that an orchestral performance can fill the concert hall and sell many recordings just as pure music, with no spectacle at all to accompany it.

Petrouchka (1911) is one of the founding documents of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, from which all ballet in the English-speaking world descends. Diaghilev's troupe began as a group formed to tour the wonders of Russian lyric and dance theater and show them to Paris and London �" but events of 1914 and then the Russian Revolution threw them on the mercy of France and Britain, and soon, the United States. Petrouchka   comes from that brief period before all hell broke loose. But the great fascination that Petrouchka has exerted over balletomanes for the last hundred years owes most to the romance and mystery and scandal of the sexual thralldom in which Vaslav Nijinsky (the "god of the dance," who originated the role of Petrouchka) seems to have been held by the director of the Ballet, Serge de Diaghilev �" from which when Nijinsky tried to break he descended by stages into madness. Nijinsky's diary is tormented, with pages that sound like the thoughts of a slave being tortured in solitary confinement, furious denunciations of Diaghilev �" and they evoke the darkness of the cell he occupied as Petrouchka, in the scenes at the heart of the ballet.

SFB's program opened too late for review, so the question is open: does the ballet still cast a spell? Do Petrouchka's longings for freedom and his defiance of the magician who controls him resonate in performance, or only in retrospect? The role requires an actor of the highest powers to make you care for him, but Pascal Molat, the French dancer who's to take the role on opening night, is a mime of great power �" and the issues are resonant. Indeed, for the last 30 years the biggest issue has been control, very often expressed through intertwined metaphors of wizardry and slavery, which have permeated the culture at many levels �" not just Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, and the Twilight vampires, but also the pervasiveness of the metaphor of addictive slavery, and of the wizard metaphor in computing, both in games and also in the "real" world of personal computing, where it's become commonplace to have a wizard install a new program for you, to have websites "remember" you, or warn you of control networks that may have enslaved your computer without your knowing it. The mazes, the gate-keepers, the avatars, the blue screen of death! The computer world seems a lot like a world run by magic.

We make our way into the world of Petrouchka through a kind of carnival �" the ballet is set in a long-past time in old St. Petersburg, in the winter, amid falling snow, at a festive time like Mardi Gras. The ballet is a grand spectacle of swirling crowds in the public square, with a puppet theater prominent in the background, and all kinds of mountebanks, acrobats, musicians up front, asking for attention �" even a dancing bear. The ballet begins and ends with tremendous choreography for the crowd, with episodes of soldiers doing the hopak and a glorious Russian dance to Stravinsky's biggest melody, which builds like a storm at sea to a huge rhythmic climax.

But the heart of the piece is the puppet show on the stage itself, and then two small inset scenes, for the dolls in their "quarters" �" for the nerdy, poetic Petrouchka (whose theme is a sad  trumpet solo that has inspired a lot of movie music �" think Fellini, La Strada ), who's desperately in love with the ballerina doll, and the handsome, sexy moor, whom the ballerina finds less frightening, and the Magician, whom Petrouchka hates and fears most of all.

Even if it does not come off, it will be worth it to see this ballet realized on the big stage by a superb company. In the late 1980s, the Oakland Ballet danced it amazingly well.

Also on the program are revivals of William Forsythe's techno-pop ballet in the middle somewhat elevated, with its stunning attack (the corps de ballet dances this at twice their normal scale), and Yuri Possokhov's romantic Into the Lilacs, which evokes the perfume of his memories of how he felt as one of a group of dancers, the emotions they all experienced as they emerged into the world �" the young in one another's arms.