Title: Review: La Bayadère by the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet
Author: NATASHA GAUTHIER
Date: February 25, 2011
Publisher: Ottawa Citizen
Like plays within a play, many classical ballets feature dance itself, or
the idea of dance, as a major element of the plot. Poor deceived, deserted
Giselle dances herself to death. In Coppelia, the village heartthrob ditches
his girlfriend for a life-size dancing doll. And the title character of
La Bayadère is a temple dancer who must give the performance of her life
even as her heart is crumbling to pieces.
Title: DOLL HOUSES
Author: Joan Acocella
Date: April 21 2008
Publisher: The New Yorker
The puppet and her puppeteer in "Petrushka." Photograph by Josef Astor.
At this moment, no theatre artist in New York is showing more poetic force or technical skill than the puppeteer Basil Twist. By now, after Julie Taymor's production of "The Lion King," it should not be hard to convince people that puppetry can be part of serious art, and the world has not ignored Basil Twist. His work has repeatedly been presented at Lincoln Center, to loving reviews, and he has won a lot of awards. Still, he is not a household name. He should be.
Early this month, Twist revived his 2001 "Petrushka," and it is an astonishment. "Petrushka," as most people know it, is a dance work, made for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, in 1911, by Igor Stravinsky (composer), Alexandre Benois (designer), and Michel Fokine (choreographer). But before "Petrushka" was a ballet it was a puppet show. Stravinsky and Benois based their libretto on the Punch-and-Judy theatricals given during Shrovetide in old St. Petersburg. In the ballet, fairgoers see a marionette show with three characters, all played by human beings: the Moor (glamorous virility), the Ballerina (brainless beauty), and Petrushka (poetic soul, as in Pierrot, the European Petrushka). Backstage, however, the puppets are undergoing a drama of their own. Petrushka loves the Ballerina; the Ballerina fancies the Moor; Petrushka comes between them; the Moor kills him.
The ballet was a hit, and was widely performed throughout the twentieth century, but time has not improved it. Modern Petrushkas tend to be over-piteous, thus banishing the original's Hoffmannesque eeriness, its mixture of human sorrow and lacquered artificiality. Enter Basil Twist, who has turned the show back into puppet theatre. For him, the heart of "Petrushka" is the music. He uses a two-piano arrangement of Stravinsky's score, and it is played on two shiny black Steinways, smack in front of the proscenium, by identical-twin pianists, Julia and Irina Elkina. Artifice, welcome back! To further that effort, Twist dispenses with the frame story, the fair, and gives us only the puppets, who, furthermore, no longer have to walk stiffly to convince us that they are puppets. They are puppets. Twist has given them human qualities. His Petrushka has movable eyebrows, so that we can see his face change from sad to angry and back. At the same time, we're never allowed to forget that these figures are dolls. The basic puppetry technique here is Japanese Bunraku. (Twist is a puppetry scholar, the sole American graduate of France's ?cole Sup?rieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette.) That means that the puppets are moved around by people dressed and hooded in black, and therefore, on a black stage, more or less invisible. But in fact the show's nine puppeteers are seldom wholly invisible. Eyebrows notwithstanding, this is not realism.
And not only because we can see the puppeteers. At times, Twist suspends storytelling and just shows us imagery suggested to him by the score. When a light, fugitive theme scampers through the music, a sparkling veil whips across the stage-Petrushka's soul, if I'm not mistaken. When Stravinsky gives us heavy, plodding music for a tamed bear's arrival at the fair, Twist, too, gives us a bear, but not a whole one-just the jaws and the claws (frightfulness, the coming death). Most subtle of all is Twist's hand imagery. Throughout the show, big, fat white hands-they look like Parker House dinner rolls-appear as puppets. This is a sort of joke-puppets in the shape of hands, controlled by puppeteers' hands-and also a serious comment on the heart of the story: manipulation. But the hands also appear, at the beginning, playing instruments: accordion, balalaika, drums. As in life, what is bad is also good.
The end of the show is a feat of comic genius. In the finale of the ballet "Petrushka," the hero's soul, liberated by death, appears atop the puppet theatre, waving its arms triumphantly. Twist's Petrushka does the same thing, but that's not the end of his apotheosis. A few seconds later, with a great flapping of fabric, he sticks his face out of a black curtain at the side of the auditorium. He has jumped out of the puppet theatre. Then he disappears again, and in the distance we hear a door slamming. Now Petrushka has escaped from Basil Twist's "Petrushka." He's on Sixty-fifth Street, presumably hailing a cab to Heaven.
Twist, with his way of going directly from the music to the image, would seem to be a natural as an opera designer. Isn't his art exactly what opera companies are looking for these days: something more abstract, more imagistic-the hand, the claw, and forget Caf? Momus? In fact, he has done one full-scale opera assignment, a "Hansel and Gretel" for Houston and Atlanta. More might harm him. He has usually worked in small venues-the "Petrushka" was staged in Lincoln Center's Clark Studio Theatre, which seats a hundred and twenty-four-and his images are often miniatures. This is puppetry, after all. If he had to expand his effects to opera-house dimensions, they could lose their power (as Julie Taymor's did in her 2004 production of "The Magic Flute" at the Met). Still, it might be worth a try.
Since Stalinist days, the Kirov Ballet has been a conservative, high-church institution. Its dancers' first thought is for correctness, fidelity to the academic technique. Their second thought-part of the first, actually-is for elegance, detail. The entire emphasis is on the body's manners, as opposed to its ability to move. Over the years, there have been complaints about this, and when the company opened a three-week run at City Center early this month, the objections could be heard again. To address them, it is perhaps unfair to begin with the first program, since, alone among the half-dozen lineups that the season will include, it consisted entirely of nineteenth-century work-excerpts from "Raymonda," "Paquita," and "La Bayad?re." But that's what the company started with, and an old repertory is presumably the best showcase for an old style. In some measure, it was. Here, in the little variations for the female soloists, you could appreciate the sheer, Cellini-cup exquisiteness of the Kirov's way of dancing. You could also see how much work goes into it. Sometimes the company's obsession with self-presentation can look narcissistic, but at other times it projects the opposite quality. When Anton Korsakov and the sweet-faced Danila Korsuntsev, leading "Paquita" and "Raymonda," respectively, marshalled every cell of their bodies to get the back leg up at precisely the required angle, and pirouette without tipping, and finish in a perfect fifth position-sometimes frowning a little as they did so-what you seemed to see was humility.
The Kirov's problem is not with its men but with its ballerinas. However much today's audiences may applaud male bravura, the lead woman is the person who, most of the time, carries the ballet, especially a nineteenth-century ballet. Typically, it is her character's fate that is the subject of the piece. Therefore, she is the one who must supply the inner momentum, and, to achieve that, a fancy style will not help you. This season, there was a great deal of oohing and aahing in the audience over the twenty-one-year-old Alina Somova. She has an enormous extension-standing upright, she can pretty much jam her leg against her ear-and that was no doubt the main cause of the excitement. (Today's audiences are mad for big extensions. They don't seem to know that, the looser the pelvis, the harder it is to control the legs.) Somova's other attractions include a lovely face, and hair the color of Barbie's. She also has the emotional range of Barbie. Uliana Lopatkina, another of the lead women, is more seasoned, not so clueless, but there is something hard and dutiful about her dancing. She wears a frozen smile.
On opening night, Somova led "La Bayad?re," Lopatkina "Raymonda." To understand what these women are lacking, you had only to look at that show's third ballerina, Diana Vishneva. Vishneva is not huge in scale; she does not have the lay-down-the-law quality that one often sees in great ballerinas. Still, she is great, because she knows how to build things-a variation, a scene. Of course, this is a matter not so much of skill as of imagination. Vishneva seems to know why she is dancing-what it is that's important about the ballet she's doing-and this knowledge translates into phrasing, which is the dancer's primary dramatic resource. As she inflects the steps, she is taking you somewhere, and you follow her bug-eyed, whereas, with many of her colleagues, you could go out into the lobby and get a drink of water, and, when you came back, they would look as though they were doing the same thing as before. Valery Gergiev, the general director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, of which the Kirov is the ballet department, seems to be aware of this problem. The day the City Center season opened, the Times relayed an announcement by Gergiev that the director of the Kirov, Makhar Vaziev, would not be in New York with his troupe. This does not bode well for Vaziev's future with the organization. Gergiev gave the Times several reasons, one being his dissatisfaction with the company's coaching: "I'm not a hundred percent sure that we have created the atmosphere . . . where all these young people are immediately helped to the maximum." Amen.
At the end of the opening week, a second program, of early-twentieth-century works by Michel Fokine, was unveiled. The company was splendid in "Chopiniana" (the ballet that Westerners call "Les Sylphides"), as it has always been, but that piece is a matter of soloist performances; it has no one female lead. After it, we saw the archetypal Big Ballerina piece, "The Dying Swan"-it was created for Anna Pavlova-of which Lopatkina gave an unflawed and unmoving account. Then came the number I was dreading, the 1910 "Scheherazade," a harem ballet, with pashas and pearls and people having sex on cushions-a quintessential specimen of turn-of-the-century Orientalism. In all the ballet repertory, no work is more dated. And, amazingly, Vishneva, in the role of the Shah's unfaithful wife, put it over. When, lusting for the Golden Slave, she ran her hands down her body, you felt what she felt. When, caught in the act by her husband, she plunged a dagger into her gut, you died with her. I am not saying that Vishneva should be coaching the Kirov's d?butants. She has other things to do, like dancing. (She is only thirty-one.) But she is a lesson, from which the company could learn. Correctness is fine, admirable, but one should have something to be correct about. ?