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Master and puppets: Petrushka’s Basil Twist with friends.

Someone Else’s Dream
By Susan Mehalick

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
Jacob’s Pillow, June 26

Before 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 modern dance.

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 the electronic.

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.

How You Move Me

Petrushka
Created by Basil Twist

Jacob’s 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 falls.

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?

—Mae G. Banner


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