Petrushka – Phaidre

Dance Europe / July 2010

Dance Europe / July 2010

Stuart Sweeney on contemporary ballet in Estonia

Even during the Soviet era, Estonia was already looking to the future, with some of the most radical art to be seen anywhere from the Baltic to Vladivostok, and since regaining independence progress has continued rapidly. As Mihkel Mutt, editor of a local cultural newspaper wrote: „This is a postmodernist nation… ver-very contemporary indeed.“ A prime example is Estonia´s music scene, with Arvo Pärt and other composers and musicians fusing diffrent traditions and techniques to create distinctine art. In dance we can also see this aesthetic trend, as two spring premieres illustrated.
While many companies celebrated the Ballets Russes anniversary with revivals of the iconic ballets from that period, Vanemuine Theatre Balleti n Tartu was one of those choosing the more adventurous, and risky, option of a 21st Century aesthetic. Pontus Lidberg is a young Swedish choreographer already enjoying international recognition. For his starting point, he selected some of his favourite dance music: Debussy´s L´Aprés-midi d´un faune and Stravinsky´s Petrushka. I share his enthusiasm – since my childhood Faune has shaped my musical taste, and the early sections, in particular, of Petrushka are guaranteed to raise my spirits.
The programme booklet is full of images from the Ballets Russes originals, so I was a little surprised that the evening opened with Ravel´s song cycle Schéhérazade, whichhas no direct link to Diaghilev that I can find.
Nevertheless, there are ravishing songs, performed by Karmen Puis with passion and a seductively rich tone. Lidberg describes the cycle as, „Musically strong enough t ostand on its own feet“ – indeed, dance is put largely aside, except for a few arm movements from shadowy figures on the floor and occasionally a little more, adding little to the music.
In contrast to the iconic designs of the original, Lidberg´s L´Aprés-midi d´un faune takes a minimalist approach, with no sets and five dancers, four in grey tops and bottoms and one with flesh coloured underwear. The dancers take it in turns to strip off and don the grey outfits, with the „naked“ dancer forming the central figure. Lidberg creates interesting shapes as the group interacts closely, using contemporary choreography. The fifth character, played by Ilja Mironov, begins to remove his grey leggings and then pulls them up as we see he is different – wearing the famous piebald tights of Nijisky. From then, we see this Faune wrestling with his identity, until his companions eventually strip away his outer layers and he seems to accept his reality. While I was interested in the patterns the dancers traced across the stage, my impression is that the ballet would have had more impact in a smaller venue and I remain unconvinced that this Faune´s uncertainty reflects the sensuous nature of the music.
Petrushka follows the original story more closely, retaining the four main characters, but with the Russian country fair people replaced by more puppets, described as fantasy animals. The vibrant opening music accompanies the Puppet Master, in black garb, moving like a malevolent spider among his creations.
Petrushka is brought to life and the familiar story of his obsession with the Ballerina and his struggle with the implacable Moor unfolds. To sustain visual interest, much of the action is a shadow play behind a backlit screen, and we also see four clones of each of the three main characters producing ensemble unison sections. While this latter innovation introduces choreographic variety, I failed to discover a narrative rationale. The fantasy animals, with luscious costumes by Triinu Pungits, also provide variation, but again their relevance to the story eluded me. There are enjoyable sections: a playful pas de deux between Saori Nagata´s Ballerina and Mironov´s Moor; a fast duet on pointe for two long-eared animals in silver outfits for Nashua Mironova and Mai Kageyama; Takuya Sumitomo´s touching vulnerability as Petrushka. But despite the wonderful music conducted by Aivo Välja, Lidberg´s Petrushka failed to fully engage me and present a satisfying new interpretation.
Nonetheless, praise is due to Vanemuine Ballet´s director Mare Tommingas, for her continuing record of bold commissioning decisions, and I look forward to future risk-taking ventures. /…/