Long-lasting launch pad

By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  April 21, 2009

The 1911 Fokine/Benois/Stravinsky ballet was an evocation of old Russia, beloved for its realistic fairground scenes and for Vaslav Nijinsky's portrayal of the tragic puppet whose liberated spirit lives on to mock his former master — and all the tyrants of the world. Both ABT and the Joffrey Ballet used to do Petrushka, but I haven't heard of an American production in years.

Basil Twist's version concentrates on the three main characters and eliminates the slave-driving Showman who controls them. Twist's puppets are real puppets who live out their own story almost independent of their near-invisible handlers. Twist translates Fokine's busy marketplace into a playground of moving abstractions — geometric objects, flying veils, enormous hands, dancing to a two-piano reduction of the score.

Like the puppets in Japanese bunraku, the characters are manipulated by three-person teams dressed in black. One puppeteer controls the head and torso, one the arms, and one the legs. The teams danced, too, infusing their own feelings into the puppets' actions, and thus breathing life into the artful bundles of cloth and wood. Twist remarked that the New College Theatre would be a fine place to stage a full production of his Petrushka. I can only hope somebody will bring this acclaimed and wondrous work to the Boston audience.

If Petrushka is a personification of Nijinsky's tortured soul, as some have imagined, Joe Davidow's My Madness Is My Love is a portrait of the dancer himself. The 2007 film was included in a three-day series of ballet movies at the Brattle Theatre. The feverish diaries Nijinsky wrote in 1919, when he was tumbling into the abyss of mental illness, inspired Davidow and choreographer Jorma Elo for this curious but cinematically beautiful meditation.

To obsessive readings from the diaries, a dance director frowns and paces and ponders how to arrange a ballet while half a dozen dancers practice sweaty moves and mostly ignore him. Meanwhile, Elo, who may be Nijinsky, is writing the diaries, with agonized gestures and furrowed brow. His younger double enacts his memories.

Couched in Elo's contemporary writhing, leaping, acrobatic idiom, the movement is all the same, but the camera transforms a grungy studio into a treehouse, a frozen fjord. Dancers scurry in the background and evaporate like ghosts. The thing they're eternally rehearsing on a modern soundstage may be their version of Afternoon of a Faun. "We'll change the choreography and the costumes," someone explains, "but the sensuality remains." Sometime before or after this, the young Nijinsky and a woman do a prolonged, athletic-erotic duet on a bed, with some of their clothes on.

I must have dozed off toward the end of this hour-long gloom because I never caught where the director loses his mind, as promised in the Brattle blurb.

La Consagración de la Primavera, by the Mexican choreographer Jaime Blanc, headlined a program of works by the Harvard Dance Program. This modern-dance adaptation of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps was a theatricalized fertility ritual, drawn partly from Mexican folklore, with totemic Ancestors (guest artist Christine Dakin and Kevin Shee), and a Chosen One (Kristin Ing Aune) who's wrapped in ceremonial garments by a ferocious community, symbolically inseminated by one of the men, then stripped of her robes and made to dance herself to death. I thought the student dancers were very effective as the mob whose aggressive instincts could be appeased only by sacrificing one of their clan.

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