Dance Feature: The Compassionate God — Basil Twist Reimagines Petrushka

Ultimately, Basil Twist’s Petrushka is a meditation on the tension between the animate and inanimate, a story that lets a puppet explain what it’s like to be a puppet, a fable that argues that to be alive is to recognize causality and suffering—and that the ability to suffer is paradoxically a precious gift.

The man pulling the strings: Basil Twist. Photo: Leroy Door

Basil Twist’s Petrushka, a presentation of ArtsEmerson and the Celebrity Series, runs November 11–21 at Arts Emerson, Boston

An associated film series, with Petrushka as its inspiration, will screened by ArtsEmerson on November 13 at the Paramount Center, Boston, MA.

By Debra Cash

Petrushka is the name of a lovelorn puppet.
Petrushka is the name of a famous, 1911 Ballets Russes ballet where dancers portrayed three puppets enmeshed in a love triangle.
Petrushka is a puppet show about that ballet about those puppets.
Ergo Petrushka is a meta-show about a puppet show.

Basil Twist is a third generation American puppeteer. His grandfather Griff Williams was a big band leader in the 1930s who used puppets as part of his show. (If you go to the Here Arts Center in New York City, you can see some of his grandfather’s dapper, tuxedoed marionettes in vitrines.) His mother directed puppet shows for kids’ birthday parties.

Part of the Sesame Street generation, young Basil created his own puppets in part to deal with shyness. Growing up, he enrolled at Oberlin College and later Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied with puppeteer Dan Hurlin (whose oddly moving, abstract Disfarmer was performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art last season). Ultimately, he was the first American to graduate from the puppetry school at the Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France.

It was in France that Twist came face-to-face—or perhaps hand-to-string—with Petrushka. The ballet had been a Ballets Russes phenomenon, one of impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s most successful syntheses of visual, kinetic, theatrical, and musical arts. Set in the hubbub of a Russian village Shrovetide fair, Petrushka was headlined by Vaslav Nijinsky as the heartbroken, knock-kneed puppet and became the image, or perhaps the avatar, of Nijinsky’s celebrity as a brokenhearted, Tolstoyan madman.

In France, Twist saw European puppet versions of the tale. Later he caught the Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of the ballet. He looked at photographs of Nijinsky’s performance and studied Igor Stravinsky’s score.

Twist staged Petrushka as a commission from Lincoln Center in 2001. I first saw it in an enthralling presentation at Jacob’s Pillow in 2002 where, to my knowledge, it was the first all-puppet production ever presented at this important dance venue, and then I saw it again in a “remixed,” behind-the-scenes lecture demonstration at Harvard in May 2009 where it was part of the conference celebrating the Ballets Russes centennial.

I made a pilgrimage to catch the revival of Twist’s abstract, “fabric waving in a 500 gallon fish tank” version of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique in 2004 (which I should mention inspired bewilderment and boos the night I attended); saw Joe Goode’s Wonderboy, where Twist’s puppet was a miniaturization of the choreographer as a Sad Young Queer; and cringed through a catastrophic production of Red Beads with Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines at Mass MoCA. Twist is an inventive powerhouse, but when he fails, he fails big.

As noted Ballets Russes historian and curator Alexander Schouvaloff has said “Stravinsky was the scaffolding that held up the edifice of the Ballets Russes.” Twist goes “meta” with the music presenting the Stravinsky score reduced for two pianos played by identical twin Russian (!) pianists, Julia and Irina Elkina. In some sense their performance —of the Petrushka score plus the Sonata for Two Pianos—is a further slight of hand, with the visual effect of their mirrored looks creating a space of theatricality on the ten-foot, square stage frame that floats between them.

The Ballets Russes glossed the iconography of Russian folklore for a Parisian public that found in it a rich vein of primitivist exoticism that could fuel the progressive, modernist impulse unfolding with the 20th century. Twist explores images that almost look like screen savers, floating geometrical icons that are transformed and dissolve before your eyes—except, look ma, no technology.

Puppets are reductions of the human body, but they are magnifications of human beings too. In Twist’s designs, each tall figure is enlarged with his or her distinct characteristics, from the extraordinary legs of the four-foot-tall ballerina to the fangs and claws of a Russian bear. The puppets move two-dimensionally with three hidden puppeteers assigned to manipulate each figure in a technique borrowed from Japanese bunraku. Scale, depth, and the impression of three-dimensional dancing are left to the observer’s brain to conjure.

Ultimately, Basil Twist’s Petrushka is a meditation on the tension between the animate and inanimate, a story that lets a puppet explain what it’s like to be a puppet, a fable that argues that to be alive is to recognize causality and suffering—and that the ability to suffer is paradoxically a precious gift.

But Twist is alert to not only the metaphor but the actuality of puppet behavior. Dancers portraying puppets can leave the stage, take off their costumes, remove their makeup, and return to ordinary life. A puppet leaving the stage returns to sawdust and fabric.

The Ballets Russes may have had responded to a God called Serge Diaghilev, but in Basil Twist’s Petrushka, that omnipotent god is the puppeteer’s will. In the Ballets Russes production, when Petrushka dies, his ghost returns to taunt his tormentor. In Basil Twist’s Petrushka, when Petrushka dies, he escapes from the servitude of the puppeteer’s hand and into an afterlife of his own determination.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
© Debra Cash 2010

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