We drove down to Akron’s E. J. Thomas Hall on Friday, February 9, 2018. For us the draw was a new Neos Dance Theatre production of Petrushka, based on a ballet that Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe premiered in Paris in 1911.
We found much to praise in Neos’ Petrushka, which featured live performance of the Stravinsky score by the Akron Symphony Orchestra (ASO), new choreography by Neos’ Artistic Director Robert Wesner, and exemplary performances by 7 Neos dancers and 40 dancers from the University of Akron’s Dance Institute. But before we talk about Neos’ Petrushka, we feel a need to express some complicated feelings about the Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe repertoire, and problems peculiar to revivals of Petrushka.
Ballet dancers and dance audiences the world over owe the Ballet Russe a huge debt for bringing high standards of training and performance to western Europe, but much of the actual repertoire of the Ballet Russe is problematic. Since the middle of the twentieth century, revivals of many of choreographer Michel Fokine’s ballets have not been well received. Choreography that once electrified audiences now fizzles. Consider Fokine’s Scheherazade (1910), a popular sensation for years after its premiere, but dismissed as a “youthful peccadillo” by Diaghilev himself, pronounced “undanceable” by Lincoln Kirstein, and described as “dated kitsch” by the NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/1981/01/04/arts/harlem-danceers-to-revive-scheherazade.html).
Time has been kinder to Petrushka, but there are at least three compelling reasons why a ballet company should think carefully before attempting to revive the Ballet Russe original.
First, the large cast and realistic production values associated with Petrushka since its premiere are inherently expensive. The original 1911 production of Petrushka, dear reader, was a highly realistic, nostalgic recreation of the pre-Lenten fairs that Diaghilev and his creative team remembered well from their days in St. Petersburg. Alexandre Benois created costumes and painted an entr’acte curtain that realistically rendered Admiralty Square, the actual location where the fairs took place. Such detail was enthusiastically welcomed by Parisian audiences in 1911. As Diaghilev knew well, they loved Ballet Russe depictions of all things exotic and Russian. But such detail is less likely to resonate with contemporary audiences outside of Russia.
Second, all of the ballets originally built around dancer Vaslav Nijinsky – as Petrushka was – relied heavily on his exceptional performances. Revivals necessarily suffer from the fact that both Nijinsky and his performance style are long dead. Contemporary versions of this ballet would do well to rethink the character and his choreography in terms of what works with contemporary dancers and audiences.
Casting Nijinsky in the role of Petrushka was one of Diaghilev’s many coups, for much of the dancer’s personality resonated with the role. Biographical sketches of Nijinsky tend to focus on the height of his jump, his madness, and his uncanny ability to submerge himself in his roles but, for all his power as a performer, Nijinsky was much like the Petrushka character, withdrawn and socially awkward — especially with women — and strongly subordinated to Diaghilev, a veritable puppet-master.
The third problem centers on the Moor, a role originally performed in blackface. As depicted in the original Petrushka, the Moor is stupid, brutal, and effortlessly stealing Petrushka’s girl; he’s a perfect constellation of negative racist stereotypes. Obviously, changes need to be made, especially given the current zeitgeist. In 2015 Sarasota Ballet, bless their hearts, produced a faithful revival of Petroushka including the original Fokine choreography and sets and costumes borrowed from England’s Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. What’s not to like? But Sarasota’s production also included the Moor in blackface and a storm of controversy erupted around that issue.
Neos’ production of Petrushka avoids the many potential pitfalls of the original. Wesner and his collaborators abstract the ballet away from its very specific time and place by dispensing altogether with realistic costumes and sets. All but one of the forty-something dancers in the Neos production are in white unitards. The simple stage decor is all in white.
Nevertheless, Neos’ hyper-abstract production presents much of the broad outline of the original Petrushka libretto. Petrushka, danced by Matthew Roberts, is still an oppressed and lovelorn puppet, hopelessly enamored of the Ballerina, danced (with appropriate technical restraint) by Brooke Wesner. When the Magician, danced by Mary-Elizabeth Fenn in a long white fall, brings the Ballerina to Petrushka’s dreary cell he becomes so excited that he frightens her away. The Moor, danced by Kaleb Riley in a black leotard but without blackface, is still something of a brute but the Neos production dispenses with the African décor and the coconut-worship. (Yes, the Moor worships a coconut in the original production.) When the Moor and the Ballerina dance together it is – compared with Petroushka’s frenzied interaction with the Ballerina — an orderly pas de deux even though it includes comic and grotesque lifts – don’t forget that Petroushka is a burlesque. When Petroushka and the Moor fight in the Neos version, it’s fisticuffs; the Moor does not have a scimitar.
And, for all its abstraction, Neos’ Petrushka contains many moments when choreographer Wesner “tips his hat” to the original Petroushka. (If you have the glossy program note, My Symphony, for ASO’s 2017/2018 season, please see Dr. Richard E. Rodda’s excellent program notes.) For instance, when the curtains on Neos’ puppet stage open, we see that it has supports built in which allow the puppets to dance with their legs dangling above the ground – very much like the 1911 original.
A Russian brown bear appears in the original Petroushka; similarly, Neos’ Petroushka includes a bear, dancer Carson Sandiford-Hoxie in a white unitard and a big white Panda head.
Another aspect of the choreography appears to reference other choreography by Nijinsky. An inchworm-like movement performed by both Roberts and Reilly seems to refer to the notorious action at the finale of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun.
About this time last year we wrote an (http://coolcleveland.com/2017/03/neos-dance-akron-symphony-collaborate-hip-hop-performers/ ) article for CoolCleveland.com about Neos’ collaboration with urban artists including breakdancers. One goal was to blend classical dance with breakdance. Some of that blending is apparent in Neos’ Petroushka. Thematic material for the chorus includes a (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dlt1Bqwc_I) floor rock. And solo material includes a spectacular (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CguBh1rOXk) worm; sorry we can’t remember which soloist.
Lest we forget that the original Petroushka depicted pre-Lenten festivities, Neos and ASO scheduled their concert just before Lent. The festive, Mardi-Gras atmosphere was effectively referenced when the corps de ballet brought many white balloons onto the stage and ASO Conductor Christopher Wilkins himself booted the first one into the audience. An exuberant finish to an exemplary concert, which included ASO performing Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz and Nino Rota’s Ballet Suite based on his music for Fellini’s film, La Strada.
Next for Neos, the dancers are guests of Firelands Symphony Orchestra in a concert titled Rising Star. 7:30pm Saturday 3/10 in Sandusky, Ohio. (http://www.firelandssymphony.com/fsocms/events/concert-schedule/)
Also at 7:30pm on Saturday 3/10, Robert and Brooke Wesner of Neos perform as guests of Ashland Symphony Orchestra in a concert titled From Mozart to Gershwin. (http://www.ashlandsymphony.org/)
8:00pm Saturday 3/17/2018, Neos participates in M.A.D.E. in Ashland which also features two time Grammy Award winner Sylvia McNair and many artists based in Ashland. More info at https://www.neosdancetheatre.org/madeinashland.
7:30pm 3/24/2018 Neos performs in Pointe of the Evening at Marathon Center for the Performing Arts in Findlay, Ohio. Tickets and more info at (http://marathoncenterarts.org/event/pointe-evening/).
7:30pm 4/21/2018 Neos performs Carmina Burana with Canton Symphony Orchestra at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall inCanton, Ohio. Tickets and more info at (https://www.cantonsymphony.org/event/masterworks-carmina-burana/).