Puppet or dancer? Entertainer or symbol? If the latter, symbol of what? The premiere of the multi-media Petrushka in Wimbledon the other night, which I previewed here, was an evening to remember.
For pianist Mikhail Rudy it's the culmination of years of dreaming and planning. It began when he took Stravinsky's own Three Dances from Petrushka (piano arrangements made for Rubinstein, who never played them, apparently - too difficult, the story goes...) and set about transcribing the rest of the complete ballet score himself, with lurking visions of what could one day be done with it in terms of visual interpretation. Micha writes of a childhood impression of a puppet show:
"I could tell that behind the curtain there was an unsettling human form, which made my heart thump. I called him The Great Puppeteer. Invested with an extraordinary power, he was able to breathe life into his creations, to make them dance and laugh, or fall in love, but, at his least whim, he could melt them down at will into a spoon, like a character from Peer Gynt, or cut off their heads as if they were poor Petrushka. I was hypnotized by his limitless power, and I identified with his creatures. Were my emotions real or imaginary? I'm still looking for the answer."
"In the little theatre where the drama of Petrushka and the Ballerina is played out, one piece of wood – the piano – brings to life other pieces of wood, at the behest of a magician in a black suit. Perhaps one should play Petrushka in a top hat, surrounded by white rabbits and ladies sawn in half whose reflections keep on multiplying in mirrors… The piano giving the illusion of an orchestra, which in turn gives the illusion of marionettes, who in turn make us believe in human feelings."Now, realised as a multi-media film by IWMF director Anthony Wilkinson, with dancers from Rambert and Matthew Bourne's New Adventures and absolutely mesmerising puppetry from the Little Angel Theatre, the Petrushka project presents Micha with an almighty challenge: playing this plethora of colourful fairground activity, inner anguish, mechanistic irony and mystical symbolism is quite tough enough without having to coordinate one's every movement with a movie. The result? It works its magic from first snowflake-drenched moment to last.
The puppeteer sees his own impish, teasing, rebellious creation achieve acrobatic wonders, undergo very human suffering, and ultimately elude him altogether. The poor puppet's head is unscrewed, his sawdust emptied on the ground, his carcas left in a cardboard box - only to reappear beyond grasp, argumentative as ever, a spirit in his own right that can never be destroyed.
Micha is aligned at once with the puppeteer/magician, wearing the turquoise and gold cloak of the character throughout his performance (but no top hat, rabbits or sawn-in-two females...). The pianist is the puppeteer; the piano is the puppet. And it escapes. The spirit of art and of creativity is something we think is ours and that we can control. But maybe, instead, it is this spirit that comes to control us. It's more than we think it is: independent, elusive, immutable.
Despite a lifetime of familiarity with Petrushka's music, story, choreography and concept, this dazzling mingling of artforms in a quiet Wimbledon sidestreet was the first time the work truly made sense to me at its deeper level. Bravo Micha, bravo Anthony and bravi bravissimi Little Angels.