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Updating Stravinsky

In three updates, Weiss' clowns lead us through an imaginative carnival of the mind--until they seem to start running out the clock.

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Don't be fooled: Clowns frequently have a lot more on their minds than just fun and games. The Katsina clowns serve the Hopi by correcting inappropriate behavior--sometimes by permanently removing the offending party. King Lear's Fool does much more than invent new jokes. The jester in Poe's "Hop-Frog" objects to the degradation of his slavery by pulling a really hot one. He immolates his merciless captors in plain view of their wives.

A glance at the original versions of Igor Stravinsky's ballets Petruschka and Pulcinella confirm the graver aspects of a dangerous occupation. In Petruschka, a decidedly existential puppet rails at the magician who animated him, before leaving his cold cell to compete with a warrior Moor for a woman who doesn't love him. Petruschka then loses and dies at his sword: Such, dear friends, is show business.

Pulcinella begins with a death threat: Since all the girls are in love with the clown, the guys in the neighborhood decide to off him. And though Jeu de Cartes (A Game of Cards) clearly bears the elements of jest--Stravinsky's original subtitle for it was "A Ballet in Three Deals"--its joker imposes social upheaval on the royal order by merely shuffling the deck.

Love, death, loneliness, anarchy, alienation--big ticket items all, and heavy lifting for a trio of clowns. It's enough to remind us that jesters couldn't make light of the human condition without substantially laying hands on it to begin with--or having it lay substantial hands on them.

Which is one of the most noticeable things about choreographer Robert Weiss and librettist Linda Belans' revisions: the stakes have been considerably reduced in two of the three sections.

In itself, this isn't necessarily cause for alarm. It's hard to picture a new Petruschka grimmer than the original, and new artists exploring old themes frequently make refreshing discoveries. In large part, such is the case with this Petruschka.

In its masterful opening, Weiss and Belans take us backstage at the circus. A flurry of activity is taking place: A trio of men rehearse a series of bravura leaps, while the ringmaster auditions a young woman. And in the lower left-hand corner of this picture, without making a lot of fuss, a man whose bald head is covered in chalk-white stage makeup is quietly falling in love. He's Petruschka. The new auditionee is Columbine.

In a triumph of choreography, direction and stage composition we see it all. The combination gives the tantalizing illusion that we're eavesdropping, seeing something we're not supposed to be. Instead of looking at a character's life, we feel we're looking into it.

Come showtime, the ringmaster ushers acts onstage by brandishing a long red flail, and dancers pantomime various animals--some more successfully than others. The audience applauds when Columbine places her head in the oversized "jaws" of three lions. Ross Kolman's lights accentuate the drama when they isolate Petruschka, the Ringmaster and the Moor in separate overhead spotlights at center stage.

But plot mechanics and characters grow unclear towards the end of the work. Petruschka's love is always much more visible than what he is actually in love with in the dancer Columbine. The terms of the suitors' competition are never clear. Little suspense accompanies Columbine's ultimate decision.

Still, the new ending resonates. Instead of the Moor's sword, a fictive audience's tender mercies await the unloved clown. An on-stage crowd gives him the "thumbs-down" sign, and then rises and throws tomatoes at him--just before they remove their overcoats and reveal they're all wearing clown white underneath. The message is plain: we're ultimately all in the same boat.

Mikhail Nikitine performs Petruschka with enviable economy of expression, but his achievements here, along with those of Ringmaster Marin Boieru and Melissa Podcasy's Columbine, are primarily theatrical. Chris Rudd's aerial, axial work as the Moor was as memorable as the lion trio of Attila Bongar, Maximilien Baud and Britt Hillard.

Even with its substantial accomplishments, the ballet's structure still gave us pause. Multiple scenes between clown, Ringmaster and Moor appear to merely reiterate things instead of move them along.

Indeed, dramatic build remains a problem in sections of Petruschka, Pulcinella and Jeu de Cartes. Portions of all three seemed to offer little new information or development of characters or situation, leaving the audience to wonder if their primary function is to run out the clock.

Choreographers commit to Stravinsky's work in toto. Here it seemed on more than one occasion that the creative team had run out of things to say before the composer had run out of music. Within such vivid worlds, further territory clearly remains to be explored.

Inadequate character development and a frenetic pace left little difference between the four royal families in Jeu de Cartes. An otherwise sparkling Margaret Severin-Hansen wore out a limited repertoire of moves--particularly a palms-up, shrugged shoulder gesture--to excuse the mischief of a character called "The Jokerette." Corps execution was awkward at points in Saturday matinee's performance, perhaps due to Rablo Javier Perez's last-minute replacement for understudy Christopher Rudd, due to the injury of Isanusi Garcia.

In Pulcinella, a similar rush left certain plot points nearly as indistinct as Patricia Nix's inexplicable set. Kohlman's hyperactive lighting here only drew focus to a Pantalone's house that appeared to have been designed by Marc Chagall and then left for some time in the bottom of a dirty aquarium. Even so, beautiful and amusing moments repeatedly arose. Timour Bourtasenkov and Lilyan Vigo's slow, sidereal pas de deux was lovely, and the pastiche based on the poisoning scene in Romeo and Juliet was funny. Further development in all three works would clearly be rewarded. EndBlock

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