and puppets: Petrushkas Basil Twist with friends.
By Susan Mehalick
Pillow, June 26
last week, the only time I’d seen Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
was back in the early 1990s when the company made its Pillow
debut at the studio/theater. Back then, the work of choreographer
Brown had a decidedly urban sensibility. It was a subtly gritty,
denim-clad kind of dance that you’d expect from a serious
up-and-coming New York City dancemaker.
Between then and now, Brown has gone global. The company’s
recent Pillow outing showed that Brown’s movement vocabulary
has evolved considerably and is now heavily influenced by
traditional African and Caribbean dance.
While an audience member seated behind me croaked “This has
been done before” after seeing the troupe’s opening number,
“Upside Down,” my feeling was that it had been done before—Garth
Fagan, anyone?—but not exactly. Brown’s work is earthier,
more fluid, perhaps less self-conscious than Fagan’s. The
20-minute excerpt from Destiny, an evening-length work
created by Brown in collaboration with a dance troupe from
the Ivory Coast, was a vibrant blend of African and Western
There was a lot of flat-footed stomping and strutting, arms
with bent elbows and upward facing palms. While the three
men wore loose-fitting pants, the four women were costumed
in brightly colored interpretations of traditional African
dress. The musical accompaniment ranged from the tribal to
Even if this dance was somewhat predictable, the dancers were
truly exquisite, and I was ready to see more. I’m sorry to
say that the rest of the program lost me. There was an excerpt
from 1999’s Water, which gave me a sense of foreboding
with its ominous piano accompaniment and cryptic gesturing.
With Walking Out the Dark, a two-part work whose second
section received its world premiere at this performance, Brown
traveled from the African continent to Cuba. As the dance’s
first section opened, a short poem about anguish and longing
was spoken in the dark. The dance that followed was dreamlike,
with three men and one woman standing at four corners at center
stage. The male and female dancers positioned opposite each
other had a strained relationship, and the tension between
them was echoed by their two counterparts.
Everyone eventually was worked up into a frenzy before collapsing
to the floor, where a stream of dirt was rained down upon
them. Anyone who’d read the artist’s statement in the program
knew this was symbolic of a ceremony from Burkina Faso in
which initiates are buried in the earth. What it meant in
the dance I cannot say.
The world-premiere section that followed was more work-in-progress
than fully formed dance. There was more brief poetry, about
pain, sorrow and forgiveness (puh-leez!); there were solos
for Brown and a drummer who beat out rhythms as he traversed
the stage. It all concluded with the four dancers, costumed
in a contemporary take on traditional Caribbean dress, dancing
more movement from traditional folk dance as they kicked up
the dirt beneath their feet to music by Ballet Folklorica
Santiago de Cuba.
Throughout, I had the feeling that I was the interloper on
someone else’s dream. I get the sense that Brown is dealing
with some very specific images and ideas, and that he’s really
trying to say something. If I ever figure out what it is,
I’ll get back to you.
You Move Me
by Basil Twist
Pillow, June 29
A ballerina leaps and soars across the stage in a jeté that
defies gravity. A villainous Moor sheaths his scimitar and
sinks back onto a pile of silken cushions, his enviable pectorals
swelling and relaxing. A forlorn Petrushka, spent from his
manic, heel-stomping dance, lies crumpled in his black box
of a room, tossed there by an unseen puppetmaster.
This is the trio of larger-than-life puppets created by the
real puppetmaster, Basil Twist, to perform Petrushka,
a most adult puppet ballet about a puppet show, presented
last week in a puppet theater within the Doris Duke Studio
Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow.
Truly a puppet show for adults, Twist’s Petrushka is
inspired by the 1911 ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine
for Nijinsky, who danced it for his own stern puppetmaster,
Diaghilev, at the Ballet Russes. The clown puppet’s costume,
with drooping white hat and red shiny boots, is an exact replica
of the one Nijinsky wore.
The music is Stravinsky’s two-piano reduction of the orchestral
score, performed at the Pillow by identical twin sisters Julia
and Irina Elkina, who sat facing each other at baby grand
pianos that filled the space beneath Twist’s velvet-curtained,
gilt-framed puppet stage.
The magical setting is a Shrovetide fair in a Russian village,
conveyed by beautifully crafted objects that appear and disappear,
float and swirl to Stravinsky’s complex rhythms. We see a
row of Russian onion domes, an aerial mélange of balalaikas
and accordions played by huge white-gloved hands, monstrous
garlands of red and white flowers whose tips meet and kiss.
All these images thrust themselves at us under black light
that makes the puppeteers invisible.
Live dancers might wish they could perform the outsize leaps
and kicks the stringless, four-foot high puppets do. In Japanese
Bunraku style, each puppet is manipulated by three skilled
puppeteers. One controls the head and pelvis, another handles
the arms and a third works the legs and feet. The expressive
puppets are made of wire, foam, wood, flexible tubing and
hinges. They are limber and full of character, especially
Petrushka, whose emotions range from love for the Ballerina
to rage at being the tool of the puppetmaster.
The lovelorn Petrushka, frantically trying to impress the
Ballerina, does his Russian kicks while floating upside down
above the stage. She will have none of him. She prefers the
virile Moor and even enters his lair to do a dance of seduction,
the sight of which infuriates Petrushka.
There follows a vicious fight, a cinematic chase. The puppets,
maneuvered under black light, grow larger and smaller as they
seem to cover great distances. Finally, we see the Moor’s
glowing golden eyes in a stage-filling close-up, and then
Petrushka’s limp body stabbed through with the scimitar. Darkness
But, look: A new, transformed Petrushka appears atop the frame
of the puppet stage. The lifeless puppet has died and his
soul, resurrected, finds eternal life. This sublime ending
is topped with a coda that delighted the children in the audience:
Petrushka reappears once more to give a quick wave from the
Duke Theatre balcony, and then, invisible, he slams the real
side door that leads offstage.
Twist’s Petrushka premiered last spring at Lincoln
Center. It is an abstract ballet filled—the children might
say, overfilled—with images such as swirling silken cloths
or a spinning circle composed of circles like a Ferris wheel
in outer space. There is more music than plot, so the abstractions
fill in when the puppet dancers are in the wings. Yet there
were enough comical touches to keep the kids watching, and
enough magic and craft for everyone.
The nine black-velvet clad puppeteers, all with impressive
downtown New York City and European credentials in dance and
theater, came out for curtain call, sweating from their hard
work in a tightly-confined space. Like Petrushka, yes?