Barefootblogger: thoughts on dance

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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I Am Petrouchka

Last Friday night I saw Julio Bocca perform the title role in Petrouchka. Probably the last time I'll see him perform. He's retiring at the end of American Ballet Theater's current season at the Met.

I have never seen the ballet that had its premiere in Paris in 1911. Created for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes by Fokine with music by Stravinsky and sets and costumes by Benois, Nijinsky famously played Petrouchka, the sad, mechanized puppet.

ABT did a respectable job of conjuring the spirit of this masterpiece. The crowd scenes successfully guided our eyes to the significant action. What would in a movie musical be camera direction was here a feat of choreographic craftsmanship. In the midst of this activity the three puppets were revealed, suspended on racks so their limbs could execute the signature floppy movements of marionettes. Stella Abrera as the Ballerina Doll perfectly rode the line between loose limbs and arched feet. Not an easy feat. But it was Bocca who stunned from the very beginning. His puppet was turned-in and knock-kneed. His sad demeanor read into the rafters. His tilted head conveyed his attitude; I didn't need to see his facial expressions though I would have liked to.

The second scene revealed Petrouchka in his cell, an irregularly shaped space with high walls. His solo was subtle bravura in the extreme. It mostly took place on his knees or moving from down to up and down again. What was virtuosic was the musicality and storytelling. Bocca suspended his usual implicit technique and instead let us into his inner-world, into his imagination, into the brave place that is scary for all performers, stillness.

Petrouchka adores the Ballerina Doll. She is uncomprehending of this. Next we see her in a love duet with the third puppet, the Moor. Petrouchka disturbs them; the chase is on.

Back at the square we are entertained once again by the crowd and passing street performers. We see the puppets fumble behind the curtain of their theater and emerge engaged in their chase. The Moor suddenly and awkwardly slices Petrouchka's neck; our hero falls. The crowd is aghast as they move into a semi circle around him. With perfect musicality Petrouchka twitches first his upper half then his lower half, the final death expirations. His last breath is a flop upstage, concealing his sad face.

The crowd completely encircles this time. They are stunned and also morbidly fascinated, like rubbernecking at an accident. The Charlatan/Puppet-Master enters and, deducing what happened, realizes he must fool the crowd into thinking that all along Petrouchka was just sawdust and rags. He picks up the body and indeed, Bocca flops in the Charlatan's arms. And then my heart skipped a beat. It wasn't Bocca at all but, indeed, a rag-doll. When the crowd surrounded him that second time the switch was made. It is shocking that I can still be so moved by the magic of dance and its use of theatrics. That moment is one I will never forget, and for more reasons than one.

Two weeks into my separation with my husband I too feel as though I've been replaced by a rag-doll, and when I was least expecting it. Thankfully I also have a crowd surrounding me, my community, near and far, of friends and family, standing by for when I will inevitably need them.

My Ballerina Doll equivalent, my husband, is not uncomprehending. He is doing what he must. I continue to adore him. But I do not chase and anyway there is no third party. This is a dance for two and we’re riding it out.

At the end of the ballet, as the Puppet Master carries the rag-doll off, the ghost of Petrouchka, the real Bocca, rises up above the puppet theater for a final gasp of life before he flops over limp, his arms swinging. Is that a death swing or merely hibernation before rebirth? The audience will never know as just then the curtain closes.

Behind my curtain I too am flopped over, slumped with my arms swinging. I swing and slump. I dance alone. Eventually I will step down from my puppet theater and revive. In addition to the rag-doll, I am also the Puppet Master.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


If I had to sum up Iceland in a word, the title of this essay would be the one. From gravel to water, rock to steel, silk to wool…topography, fashion, architecture…texture rules and is celebrated in the most understated of ways. It just is, as integral as motion to a dancer.

James Sewell Ballet just returned from a week in Iceland and as I negotiate my jet lag I let my thoughts wander, congealing that country’s singularity with our performing there and my own dancing in general.

I am still culture shocked. I never thought I’d fall in love with a place that wasn’t cobblestoned and cute. Reykjavik is an urban village. Situated on the sea, the multicolored houses attempt to bring cheer to the stark, mostly corrugated steel building exteriors. The bright colors are like red lipstick on a pale blonde, accentuating the paleness and ice blue eyes even more.

Our venue, Austurbae, was on the edge of the city center, one block off the main drag. The raked stage was a surprise and so ridiculous that we simply made the adjustment. The marley floor was brand new, purchased just for us. The theater was no frills at its finest and quickly became home for three days. We performed to three sold out audiences who expressed their appreciation with unison clapping. It was truly a thrill to bow to the folks of a nation so notoriously remote and cold yet who were so clearly enjoying themselves.

We performed the ballets we took to NY, a smart choice as they were such a part of us we could spare some brainpower and physical energy on negotiating our surroundings, foreign in every way. It is quite something to get “in body” in another country. No matter where we are, we always take our instruments with us and can theoretically access them at will. A plie will always be a plie and there is great comfort in that, especially when faced with nothing else familiar.

On Sunday we traveled into the interior with our host, Jon, the epitome of Viking stoic. In the country I’ve never seen or experienced such barren ripeness, such strange beauty. To be out in it, amid the elements, was primal and glorious. I wanted to live the motto on my T-shirt: Lost in Iceland. Words to describe the day: water, coins, feather, spongy grass, rugged rock, wild horses, mom-and-pop spa, extreme temperature changes, windswept hair, glowing skin, naps in the van, vitality, camaraderie, rainbow, exhaustion.

On Monday Brittany, Sally and I took class with the Iceland Dance Theater as arranged by go-getter Brit. It was a treat and the ultimate way to engage in a culture: to do such a work-a-day activity. We were warmly received and felt right at home when we were told to do our own plies, JSB’s standard initiation into class. The rest of the day was spent fitting in all that we hadn’t done yet. Too much to achieve in too little time but here are my highlights: exploring the Reykjavik Art Museum Hafnarhus (a warehouse renovation reminiscent of the Tate Modern in London), seeing the swans on lake Tjornin, being alone with the light in the bell tower at the top of Hallgrimskirkja church, (the structure that literally took my breath away when I turned a corner and saw it in the rain five days prior), being recognized on the street, playing Icelandic Scrabble with James and Sally over a bottle of wine and french fries.

The day we left we went to the Blue Lagoon, a man made swimming hole/paradise. Here is where I felt that I was on Mars. It is so reassuring to know that there are such surprises in the world. I was in store for one more…

As we flew home I had a window seat again. We flew over Greenland and my heart swelled at its extreme, remote and almost-lifeless majesty. Then mile upon mile of floating ice: flat, white and stark against the steel blue water, I got an idea for my next dance. I pulled out my journal and turned my mind to coming home.