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#Throwback Thursday: Petrushka

Today's #ThrowbackThursday is the early 20th century ballet Petrushka.

Also known as the French Petrouchka, the four-scene ballet was created in 1910-1911 by Michel Fokine, to music by Igor Stravinsky. While the original idea was Stravinsky's, Russian artist and historian Alexandre Benois aided in the writing of the libretto. The ballet opens on the Shrovetide Fair of 1830, in St. Petersburg's Admiralty Square. A crowd has gathered for the fair, which was a Mardi Gras-style affair preceding Lent. The Master of Ceremonies enters, announcing the days attractions. From the crowd emerges an Organ-Grinder and a Dancing Girl, who begins to dance to a Russian folk song. At the other end of the stage, another Dancing Girl enters. The two dancers compete for the crowd's attentions to the tune of an old French song.

Two drummers summon the crowds to the puppet theatre, where the Magician (originally called the Charlatan) suddenly appears. He plays the flute as the curtain rises, revealing three puppets: the Moor, the Ballerina, and Petrushka. With a wave of the Magician's hand, the three awaken and perform an energetic Russian folk dance. The Ballerina and the Moor dance well, but Petrushka is somewhat stiff and awkward. The three burst out of the puppet theatre and into the crowd, where it becomes apparent that Petrushka is in love with the Ballerina, but she only has eyes for the Moor. The Magician calls the dance to a halt and the curtain falls.

The Second Tableau opens on Petrushka's room, inside the theatre. Petrushka is kicked onto the stage, falling onto the floor. He drags himself to his knees, miming his self-pity, his unrequited love for the Ballerina, and his hatred of the Magician. The Ballerina, dancing en pointe, sneaks into Petrushka's room unnoticed. When Petrushka sees her, he breaks into a series of leaps which frightens the Ballerina. She flees. Petrushka peaks longingly at the crowd outside.

The Third Tableau, in the Moor's room, begins with the Moor reclining on a divan playing with a coconut. He jumps to his feet and attempts to cut the coconut in two with his scimitar, but fails. Believing it must be a god, he then starts praying to it. The Magician places the Ballerina in the room. Attracted to the handsome Moor, the Ballerina dances with him. Petrushka breaks out of his room, interrupting the seduction of the Ballerina. Petrushka attempts to attack the Moor, but is too weak to gain the advantage. The Moor beats Petrushka, who flees for his life.

It is now early evening at the carnival. The Fourth Tableau starts with a series of unrelated folk dances. The merriment is interrupted by a cry from the puppet theatre, and Petrushka enters, chased by the Moor. The Moor is brandishing his scimitar, and the Ballerina follows on behind, scared of what he might do. It is not long before the Moor catches up to Petrushka, and, to the horror of the crowd, slays him with a single stroke of his sword. The police question the Magician, who is anxious to remind everyone that Petrushka was merely a puppet. As night falls, the Magician takes away the body. Petrushka's ghost appears over the roof of the theatre, in defiance to his tormentor. The Magician, terrified of his former puppet, runs away - leaving the audience wondering who is real and who is not.

Petrushka premiered in Paris on 11 June 1911, performed by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Theatre du Chatelet. The costumes and sets were designed by Alexandre Benois, who had also worked on the libretto. Stravinsky's score was conducted by Pierre Monteux. Petrushka was portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the Ballerina by Tamara Karsavina, the Moor by Alexander Orlov, and the Charlatan/Magician by Enrico Cecchetti. Petrushka was one of the most popular productions the Ballets Russes ever produced, and certainly one of their most enduring. Today it is tradition to perform the ballet with the original choreography and/or sets.

Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka, 1911

Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina, 1911

After the success of The Firebird in 1910, Diaghilev commissioned another work from Stravinsky. The composer proposed a new ballet following a pagan rite, saying he had a vision of a group of elders seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death as a sacrifice to the god of spring. This would, of course, become the equally famous ballet The Rite of Spring, scheduled for premiere in the 1912 Paris season of the Ballets Russes. But, when Diaghilev went to visit Stravinsky in Switzerland in late 1910, he found the composer hard at work on a different piece altogether; music which would eventually become Petrushka.

Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka with Igor Stravinsky, composer (left)

Stravinsky originally envisioned the music as a pure concert piece, but Diaghilev had a different vision. The music, he said, reminded him of Petrushka, the Russian puppet who had a history of performing in street markets since the importation of puppets by the Russian empress Anna Ivanova in the early 18th century. Stravinsky's score was characterised by the now famous 'Petrushka chord', consisting of C major and F# major triads heralding the arrival of the main character. His score was revised in 1947 for a smaller orchestra.

From left: Tamara Karsavina as the Ballerina, Sergei Diaghilev (director of the Ballets Russes)

and Vaslav Nijinsky, 1927

Petrushka continues to be performed today, almost unchanged from the original Ballets Russes production. The most famous Petrushka was, of course, Nijinsky, but many have taken on the role since. Here's the four scenes of the ballet as performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.

The First Tableau:

The Second Tableau:

The Third Tableau:

And the Fourth Tableau:


- Selene

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