A Puppet Show (But Not For Children)

Long before Disney made Pinocchio a real boy, before Woody met Buzz Lightyear, before the Scarecrow and the Tin Man wanted a brain and a heart, before the Velveteen Rabbit learned to hop . . . there was Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, a haunting ballet about a puppet who becomes real.  And unlike the others, it’s hardly a family-friendly bedtime story.

American towns mostly missed out on the grand European tradition of the traveling commedia dell’arte puppet theatres (commonly known as “Punch & Judy shows”), but from the mid-1800’s through the early 20th century, they were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in small-town Europe, particularly at public events like carnivals and fairs.  They were hugely popular in Russia, where the stock character counterpart of the English “Punch” (the male hero of the puppet shows) was called Petrouchka.  He was a traditional Russian puppet, usually with a body made of straw, whose awkward and ungainly movements inspired comedy and pathos by turns.  Stravinsky grew up going to Petrouchka puppet shows in his native Russia, and he described the character as “the immortal hero of every fair in all countries.”

A very traditional Petrouchka, produced in 2008 by the Birmingham Ballet from Fokine’s original choreography

In 1910, Stravinsky was an international sensation, fresh off his phenomenal success with The Firebird, the ballet he wrote for impresario Serge Diaghilev and his company, the Ballets Russes.  Diaghilev immediately commissioned him to write another ballet, eager to capitalize on the tidal wave of great publicity.  Stravinsky dived into the project which would eventually become his most famous (and controversial) work, The Rite of Spring; while working on it, he had an idea for a very different kind of work, originally conceived as a concert piece for orchestra and piano that would be loosely based on the folk puppet characters of his childhood come to life, with the thoughts and emotions of humans.  As Rite of Spring slowly progressed, Stravinsky played around more and more with this new concert piece, both for variety and to give himself a mental break from the larger project at hand.  When Diaghilev arrived to visit Stravinsky and check in on the progress of their new ballet, Stravinsky played a few snippets of the concert work for him and told him about his vision for the piece.  Diaghilev loved it immediately, and was struck by its potential, not just for a static concert experience but for a fully-produced ballet.  They placed Rite of Spring on the shelf temporarily and pursued Petrouchka wholeheartedly as their next collaboration.

While the piece was generally considered a phenomenal success, Stravinsky’s edgy neo-classical compositions would always have their detractors.  One anecdote, possibly apocryphal, tells of a critic sitting in on an early rehearsal, then pulling Diaghilev aside to snap, “And it was to hear this that you invited us?”  Boris Kochno, a ballet historian/librettist and Diaghilev’s longtime secretary, wrote in his juicy insider tell-all Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: “The Paris premiere of Petrouchka was a triumph, and the work continued to be one of the great successes of the Ballets Russes until Diaghilev’s last season, in 1929. Nonetheless, at its first performance, several prominent musicians criticized Stravinsky’s revolutionary music harshly. In his Souvenirs et Commentaries, Stravinsky recalls that Rimsky-Korsakov described the Petrouchka score in a newspaper article as ‘Russian vodka mixed with French perfume.’”

But audiences loved it, and from the first night it was clear that the Ballets Russes had a hit on their hands. Petrouchka became one of their signature works, for several reasons.  First, the entire artistic team was composed of the company’s greatest talents – choreographer Michael Fokine was responsible for the Ballets Russes’ greatest hits, and the celebrated Vaslav Nijinsky, the most popular male dancer of his day, played the lead.  Fokine’s choreography was audacious and surprising, and the dancers executed it flawlessly.

A more contemporary adaptation of Petrouchka at the Scottish Ballet in 2009, produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Audiences also responded to the realism of the ballet’s world; the folk scenes were true and authentic, drawing inspiration from real Russian folk songs and dances the audiences would recognize.  The story itself – the doomed love triangle between the beautiful Ballerina, the swarthy Moor she loves and the ungainly puppet Petrouchka, who loves her, all three under the thumb of the merciless, manipulative Charlatan – resonated with audiences as well.  Petrouchka himself, the toy puppet brought to heartbreaking life, was a complex, nuanced character, with more psychological complexity than audiences at the time ever dared expect from the male hero of a classical story ballet.  In fact, in a daring reversal of gender roles, Petrouchka had far more in common with tragic ballet heroines like Giselle and Odette than with their dashing, handsome princes.  The ballet’s dark ending, which left audiences questioning the reality of everything they had just experienced, marks Petrouchka as a surprisingly fresh and modern work which more than holds its own against contemporary meditations on the nature of reality, from Being John Malkovich to The Matrix. 

In 1947 Stravinsky reorchestrated the score, both to make it more accessible to small- and medium-sized orchestras and to ensure that it was under copyright (the 1911 premiere version wasn’t).  OBT’s production will feature the 1947 revised version.  Petrouchka continues to be adapted today by choreographers and artists all over the world, from stripped-down modern interpretations to versions using real puppets.

The Ballerina from Basil Twist’s puppet adaptation of Petrouchka, inspired by Japanese and Czech puppetry traditions

0 thoughts on “A Puppet Show (But Not For Children)

  1. Oh Lord. Good work, Claire. How did neither I, nor Trisha, nor WordPress catch that one? I should change it to “dove,” but I think I’ll leave it since you found it so entertaining. 🙂

  2. Okay, that’s what I thought, but then I was all second-guessing myself like you’d caught me out in an embarrassing typo . . .

  3. North Carolina School of the Arts put on its own adaptation (about 20-25 years ago) which included an extremely surreal 80’s dance party and also a large portion with the wing curtains pulled exposing everything. I suppose it was helping with the the show about a show… about a show aspect. I always wished I had some record of this smashing mind blowing performance. Perhaps one exists someplace. I look forward to seeing the Oregon ballet production.

  4. The content is pretty dark – there is violence and it’s a bit creepy. In addition, what we’ve heard from the choreographer and the artists involved is that this adaptation has a definite sexy edge to it. It’s also a very complex story, exploring a lot of themes like what’s real and not real, and the surrealist element will probably go over the heads of younger children. Older children will probably be fine, but both the content of the story and this particular adaptation are very adult.

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