I do have an obsession with classical ballet and costumes. Among my favourite ballets there is Petrushka that was staged last week at London’s Royal Opera House by the Bolshoi as an early tribute to the 100th anniversary of its premiere.
The ballet was indeed staged for the first time in June 1911 by the Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
The new Bolshoi production combined instead the choreography from a version staged in St. Petersburg in 1920 with costumes and decor based on designs for a production that took place a year later at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Petrushka starts in a square in St Petersburg where, during the maslenitsa or Shrovetide Fair, The Charlatan, a sort of conjurer, blows life into three puppets, Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Moor.
The animated dolls enchant their audience since they dance with such verve that many spectators think they are alive.
But soon the story takes a tragic turn. Both Petrushka and the Moor are in love with the Ballerina, but it’s the Moor who wins her favours and eventually kills Petrushka.
Policemen arrive to investigate since the audience refuses to believe the three puppets are mere dolls. The Conjurer is arrested, but, picking Petrushka’s corpse, he shows the onlookers that he is made of sawdust. The crowd disperses but the ghost of Petrushka appears on the theatre roof, angry at the Conjurer who flees in terror.
Diaghilev and Nijinsky first heard a piano piece by Stravinsky entitled "Petrushka’s Cry" in 1910 while they were in Clarens.
The first piece Stravinsky wrote, characterised by heartbreaking piano cascades, was then incorporated in the second part of the ballet, then the composer wrote the preceding "Russian Dance" and the music for the first part.
Diaghilev thought that the subject could be turned into a new ballet and involved in the project Alexandre Benois.
The artist had some great childhood memories of the Shrovetide festivities in St Petersburg and of the balagani pantomimes being played among the market stalls, and came up with the story, the set designs and costumes.
Yet what started as a tribute to Russian fairy tales, soon turned into a very moving piece, that had in its outdoor scenes some references to opera and in particular to the street-life scenes from Puccini’s La bohème.
The score was also rather experimental, thanks to its offbeat rhythms and a harmony characterised by a rather unromantic quality, with the addition every now and then of rather banal compositions like a collection of Russian folk music melodies put together by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1876, used by the young Stravinsky as a criticism to the provincialism and narrow mindedness of his native culture.
Though Stravinsky and choreographer Mikhail Fokine didn’t get along well, this did not prevent them to create what came to be considered as a masterpiece.
Puppets coming to life were a rather stereotypical theme of 19th century ballet, yet when the ballet was first staged in June 1911, the Punch-like figure of Petrushka had been radically transformed into a melancholic and delicate character, very similar to Pierrot.
This transformation had taken place during the rehearsals. Benois stated in Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet: “At the final rehearsals Nijinsky seemed to awaken from a sort of lethargy; he began to think and feel. The final metamorphosis took place when he put on his costume, about which he was always very particular, demanding that it should be an exact copy of the sketch made by the artist. At these moments the usually apathetic Vaslav, became nervous and capricious. Having put on the costume, he gradually began to change into another being, the one he saw in the mirror. He became reincarnated and actually entered into his new existence, as an exceptionally attractive and poetical personality.”
Sarah Bernhardt was so touched by his characterisation of Petrushka that she subbed him "the greatest actor in the world”.
Pierrot was a sort of iconic figure, representing and incarnating the Artist for the Symbolists and the "Mir iskusstva" (World of Art) group, the movement led by Benois, had developed important links with the Symbolists, and this explains the connection between Pierrot and Petrushka.
Petrushka became therefore a symbol for every artist, but also a metaphor for the indomitable spirit of the Russian people and, at the same time, a reference to the condition of modern man, controlled by the hands of a cruel fate. The symbolism behind this character is what truly fascinates me about Petrushka.
The Ballerina represented instead femininity and the Moor was the embodiment of everything attractive and powerfully masculine.
While for the Moor’s costume Benois favoured an emerald green colour richly decorated with silver ribbons and buttons and gold fringes (sets and costumes were made in St Petersburg by painter and stage/costume designer Boris Anisfeld), the other costumes were inspired by Lubki prints, colourful Russian prints, characterised by graphics and narratives derived from literature, religious stories and popular tales.
The colours of the Lubki prints are echoed here and there in the costumes of the Ballerina (Tamara Karsarvina), The Charlatan (Enrico Cecchetti), the Street Dancer (Bronislava Nijinska), the Nursemaid (Baranovich) and the Coachman (Orlik).
Among the Autumn/Winter 2010 collections there is one n particular that makes me think about Petrushka, Marni's.
Consuelo Castiglioni's patterns and palette comprising ocher, red, pink, turquoise and green at times evokes a rather unusual crossover between the Cubo-Futurist works of Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova and the constructivist paintings of Aleksandra Ekster.
I think it's simply amazing that a ballet first staged one hundred years ago can still move us and inspire us and I genuinely hope the celebrations for Petrushka's 100th birthday will provide us with some new and fresh connections between art, ballet, costume design and fashion.