Petruchska review in The Sun Break

More Positivity

You have one last weekend to visit what feels like an instance of “On the Boards East,” as Spectrum Dance Theater presents choreographer Donald Byrd’s revisioning of his Petruchska (at SDT’s Lake Washington studio April 20 to 22; tickets: $25/$20 students). In fact, why not double down? At the actual On the Boards this weekend, you can see Kyle Abraham’s “Live! The Realest MC,” which also draws on puppet-based themes to delineate human experience.

Byrd’s Petruchska-this-time is as much art installation and “happening” as it is dance. The inimitable Byrd tricks you into taking your place, that, too late, you determine is a dunk tank’s seat, over a pool of eerie, erotic thrashings. There’s the pitch! Down you go, metaphorically.

It is emphatically “not for children,” though the evening begins innocently enough. You’re greeted by a backyard carnival–tickets a buck a pop–with ring tosses, popcorn, and Dante’s Inferno Dogs. It takes a few minutes–it feels at first like a modest fundraising opportunity–before you realize you’ve stepped into the fair indicated as opening Stravinsky’s original ballet. You can’t undo it; gone is the fourth wall. As you hand over your ticket, you accept a measure of culpability.

As Byrd blogged earlier, he’s become interested in stage directing his choreographic works, and for Petruchska, with the aid of a cavalcade of design talent (Greg Ashworth, video; Doris Black, costumes; Rico Chiarelli, lighting; Scott Colburn, sound; Matthew Richter, scenic; Isaac Waring, the carnival), he’s created three stages: the outdoor carnival, the usual dance studio upstairs, and a “surveillance room” on the main floor, that you move between on cue.

Donald Jones, Jr., in full huckster mode, appears first as the Charlatan, the puppet master/adult revue manager, exhorting the crowd to pay up to see “what’s inside,” offering a free look at some of his delightful ladies. Nothing quite goes right for him throughout the course of the evening: acts cancel, puppets misbehave (and so did a costume element on opening night, but he managed it one-footed). There’s a moment where he’s surrounded by dancers, they’re waist-bent as if in homage, petals to his stamen, and Jones grins broadly at all assembled–it’s epic in its falsity.

His private show is something less than promised, as well. When the “life-sized” puppets come to life, it’s as misshapen members of an asylum, moaning and muttering; most of this puppet troupe (Jeroboam Bozeman, Derek Crescenti, Jovian Fry, Amber Nicole Mayberry, Shadou Mintrone, Kate Monthy, Briley Neughbauer) are hung from straps, while the drama between Petruchska (Vincent Michael Lopez), Columbine (Jade Solomon Curtis), and the Moor (Ty Alexander Cheng) plays itself out.

You find yourself watching Byrd’s puppet choreography with amazement–how alien it seems, the dancers mimicking string pulls at wrist, elbow, knee. The strange, knees-out hop is spot on; they levitate. You can spot when one or two forget and move from their core.

It probably helps to know that, for Stravinsky, Petruchska turns to Columbine as a distracting relief from his puppet-istential angst. This isn’t that kind of love story, though it’s touching, even so. Lopez is terrific at conveying in vital pantomime the volatile twitchiness of the unloved, not quite sure how to ask for such a thing. Lopez is compressed, then startlingly grasping.

Curtis’s Columbine is, bluntly, hot–if you care to admit your thing for animate(d) puppets. These attractions are a two-edged wooden sword, though, as Petruchska discovers when Columbine is responsive to the Moor’s more predatory advances as well. To creep you out further, Byrd has the Moor-Columbine assignation play out on video, though you can hear the dancers pant, tumble, and grunt in the next room.

It’s a disquieting, voyeuristic glimpse of athletically rough sex, meant to put you in mind, I think, of internet fare and the misogynistic socioeconomic puppetry involved, as much as this particular love triangle. If you continue to dive down in search of signifiers, I’m not sure there’s a bottom. But that intrusion of disjunctive, live sound reminds you of the humanity of the performers, their vulnerability, even as Cheng, on all fours, springs at the bed; even as Curtis alternately tames and succumbs.

Petruchska cannot, of course, handle the Moor’s manhandling of Columbine; he attacks, to the Charlatan’s sputtering chagrin. You are led outside, where the action extends beyond the raised stage on the beach, to Spectrum’s roof–joggers on the beach crane their necks at this Fellini-esque irruption. So do you. Everything seems to be in play, and you’re without a safe word. Alive, dead, Petruchska shakes his fists at the Charlatan’s attempt to dehumanize him. But who did the Charlatan do that for? For you. Your amusement, your entertainment.

I more or less fled the scene.

Petruchska review in Seattle Magazine

A great review by someone who gets it

Sound Design by Scott Colburn

I don’t want to give too much away, because the best parts about Petruchska (plays through April 22) should be stumbled upon – like many of the steps I almost tripped over while wending my way with the rest of opening night audience through the dark passages inside the transformed Madrona Bathhouse studios, where Spectrum Dance Theater has its enviable home.

Petruchska is a classic ballet written by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (you may remember him from such canonical works as The Firebird). The story follows a puppet (played here by Vincent Michael Lopez) who performs along with other puppets at the beck and call of a cruel and demanding puppet master. As if things couldn’t get worse, poor Petruchska falls for fellow puppet Columbine (Jade Solomon Curtis), who does not share his affection. But Petruchska decides not to go down without a fight.

Artistic director and choreographer at Spectrum, Donald Byrd (whom I profile in our April issue) has adapted this classic story, changing not only the spelling of the name – but exploding the entire format in a fresh and vigorous contemporary exploration. Byrd’s staging travels from beach, to corridor, to television screen; on and off stage and in and out of the elements. He risks rain and even accessibility in order to get us closer to, or more mixed up in the emotional dilemma of Petruchska, who, no matter how trapped and powerless he seems, desperately perseveres.

Staging the show like an immersive carnival, Spectrum for the first time uses the entire bathhouse building, including the roof (next time – I hope they incorporate the barge floating nearby). Dancers moving among dimly lit hallways and wearing stark white masks give it the feel of a haunted house – or a carnival run with nefarious intentions (Uh, are you sure I should go this way?). Carnival performers haunt the outdoor stage before the show, maybe to entertain you, or maybe to trick you? A funny and loquacious Master of Ceremonies or “The Charlatan”, played by the always impressive Donald Jones Jr., seems both confidently in charge of the chaos he manages—and also emotionally unhinged.

Using three separate stages (one of which the audience can see only via live video feed; and thanks to great camera work is pulled off with amazing, visceral effect), Spectrum Dance Theater catapults the whimsical Pinocchio-like tale into a gritty and unnerving window into the lives of prisoners who perhaps aren’t fully aware of their imprisonment.

From the screams of the puppets as their puppet master hangs them from the walls, to the hot-and-heavy sex acts played out between the Moor puppet (Ty Alexander Cheng) and Columbine, almost in pantomime; to the fierce physical prowess of the Spectrum dancers that always half-enchants and half-scares me; to, finally, the ultimate act that ended (accidentally) with shards of a broken light bulb flying across the stage – the show is terrifying, captivating and deliciously real.

Donald Byrd has traveled to new risky heights in his mastery of using dancers’ bodies to tell the darkest and most primal pieces of the human story.

And to anyone distracted by the “technical difficulties” we saw in the first run, opening night, I hope you noticed the moment where the music suddenly cut out and Lopez (Petruchska) slowly departed the stage with only the sounds of the waves from Lake Washington lapping the shore to accompany him—it was one of the more haunting, effective moments in theater I’ve seen in Seattle. The ones that happen by accident usually are.

Spectrum Dance, I’ll take your work any day—“technical difficulties” and all.

GO SEE IT

Petruchska review in The Seattle Times

Published in the Seattle Times

Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka,” it turns out, sounds just dandy as fairground-organ music.

The familiar tunes of the 1911 ballet, delivered in rinky-dink style, are the first thing to greet you as you approach a ragtag carnival set up behind Spectrum Dance Theater in Madrona Park. Other features of the festivities include a pair of hula-hooping/boa-waving dancers, some makeshift midway attractions and popcorn and hot-dog vendors for those feeling hungry.

An outdoor stage stands ready for action — and it eventually comes in the form of a crass and charismatic “Charlatan” (Donald Jones Jr.) determined to lure customers into his “Puppet World.” The journey involves going indoors and out, upstairs and down. But while components of the experience have a lurid, visceral strength, the transitions between them can be cumbersome.

Donald Byrd’s new multistage production of “Petruchska” (Byrd’s spelling of it) is a complete reinvention of his 2006 re-casting of the 1911 ballet at the Moore Theatre. It’s an adventurous use of Spectrum’s limited space, but some kinks in logistics and narrative pace still need to be figured out.

One thing that works just fine is Jones’ smiling, sneering emcee spiels (he and Byrd co-wrote the script). This little circus, it seems, is in even worse shape than it appears. The fat lady has gone missing, and the Ethiopian glass eater (“You like recycling, right, Seattle?”) doesn’t exist.

Jones, after sweating these setbacks with a desperate grin, then lures his audience inside to “a place where inanimate bodies can move.”

Upstairs, in Spectrum’s studio theater, he delivers as promised. In a fog-filled room, seven puppets in misshapen white costumes (Spectrum ensemble dancers) howl in fear of him. But his three special treasures — Petruchska (Vincent Michael Lopez), Columbine (Jade Solomon Curtis) and the Moor (Ty Alexander Cheng) — adore him to a craven degree. He takes pleasure, too, in their embraces and caresses, until abruptly scowling and shrugging them off.

We’re in “Island of Dr. Moreau” territory here as much as the realm of folklore, and for the short time Byrd places us there, it works.

The next stage — where, thanks to some high-tech wizardry, we spy on the offstage lives of these puppets — puts the audience in the voyeur’s role. It’s a clever, twisted touch, even if it does take away from the immediacy of the dance energy. Lopez, Curtis and Cheng, as three unhappy points in a love triangle, mix fight choreography, sexual bravado and dance vigor with their usual fearless prowess. You can’t help wishing you could witness their conflict in the flesh, though.

The show’s finale, back outside, unfolds in a way that uses the whole building. But that fourth move, and the lag in getting the action going the minute the audience is outside, sink the momentum of the piece. Mishaps with the stage set and Jones’ costume also tripped things up Friday night.

No doubt Byrd will tighten “Petruchska” over the course of its run. But his experiment does suggest that, when you’re dealing with material as intense as this, there’s a good reason to place it inside a single, tight, unifying frame as he did at the Moore.

Sound Design by Scott Colburn