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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.


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