A magical 'Petrushka,' staged with puppets

April 8, 2011

By Lisa Kraus

For The Inquirer

Master puppeteer Basil Twist seduces us gently into the world of his magical Petrushka, a highlight event in the newly inaugurated Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. With its prologue - an abstract ballet for long planks, flat squares, and bits of arcs - we enter a realm where anything might spring to life. When animated, a blowing curtain, a bouquet of flowers, a scary bear, or a humanlike puppet can pull at our heart.

This Petrushka, on view at the Annenberg Center's Harold Prince Theater, is a visionary's reimagining of the ballet created in 1911 for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The story of three carnival marionettes in a love triangle - the Ballerina, the Moor, and Petrushka, a rag doll - unfolds within an ornate golden frame. Modeled on Japanese Bunraku puppets, which are two-thirds the size of a person and manipulated by three puppeteers each, these characters are enormously expressive and easily stretch beyond the limits of human movement.

Igor Stravinsky's score, composed at the same time as Rite of Spring and with some of Rite's cascading chords and crashing percussiveness, inspires splendid dances. The Ballerina, buxom and wearing a pink tutu, hovers miraculously in the air on her jumps, and arches her back way beyond human possibility. The tiny beats of her feet and careful placements of her arms and head are akin to the "real" thing, but then delightfully distended.

The Moor, with gold nipple rings and six-pack abs, moves like a martial-arts action hero. That his costuming recalls contemporary Aladdin as well as the Blue Slave-type figures so popular in Diaghilev's time is a playful stroke. Petrushka himself is the sweetest of sad sacks, in a costume mimicking the one worn by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, who originally danced the role. Petrushka's hopes for getting the girl are ultimately dashed, but not before he demonstrates his springy, floppy dancing prowess and gives the Moor a good chase through the twirling lights of the Carnival.

The controlling hands of the puppeteer, appearing as multiple hand puppets, are a recurring motif. Petrushka liberates himself from their control in the end, to our delight.

The twin pianists Julia and Irina Elkina deliver Stravinsky's score with sensitive authority. The puppeteers are nothing short of miraculous. Bring your family. Bring your friends. Or just bring yourself, and be enchanted.