Harvard Theatre Collection – Ballets Russes Symposium – Day 2

April 16, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Performance carried the day at the Ballets Russes symposium that I’ve continued to enjoy. The illustrious Thomas Forrest Kelly gave the second and final keynote (regrettably, Joan Acocella has had to cancel). Kelly’s talk was drawn from the First Nights curriculum he has developed, and focused on the premiere of the Rite of Spring (a mainstay of his core course, which I taught last fall). He wanted to give the audience an impression of “what it might be like” to be an audience member at the first night of the “GalloSlavicGesamtKunstWerke” that was Rite of Spring.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding Kelly one of the most entrancing public speakers on music that I’ve ever encountered. Eschewing the podium, as usual, he has a stadium-sized presence on stage and a clarity and accessibility of exposition that many would do well to emulate. He usually speaks with minimal written notes, and doesn’t seem to have a problem with performing as he lectures. It seems too bad that few musicologists think about “adding value” to their talks the way he does, by not only conveying a clear idea of some of the salient features of the Rite but also getting an audience excited about the subject matter. Everyone at Harvard knows about Kelly’s prowess in this respect – if you ever have a chance to see one of his lectures you shouldn’t miss it.

In the afternoon, Basil Twist and his Company presented an adapted version of his Petrushka, a puppet show (although that somehow makes it sounds less magnificent than it is). For those of you up on your Petrushka, you know the scenario revolves around a love triangle between a moor (it was written in politically incorrect times), a ballerina and the titular character, a puppet – so there is an interesting meta-level to Twist’s presentation, since it is a puppet pretending to be a dancer pretending to be a puppet. To make things even more recursive, he used a two-piano arrangement in his production, so there are puppets pretending to be hands pretending to play Stravinsky’s music. Tangled up yet?

Twist’s production was adapted to the limitations of the New College Theater. Typically, the performers wear black velvet head to toe and are lit in such a way that they are invisible (the so called “Czech Black” technique). Because there wasn’t time to configure the theater like that for this demonstration, though, the movement of the puppeteers (three of them per puppet – apparently derived from the bunraku tradition  – yikes) was clearly visible throughout. For me at least, this seemed to make it more, rather than less magical, since I really couldn’t believe the kind of coordination that was required to accomplish what they did.  Anyway, if you ever have a chance to see Twist’s extraordinary imagination at work, don’t miss it, either.

Parting thought: Where the heck is Richard Taruskin this week? He seems to have come up in every paper session so far …

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Harvard Theatre Collection – Ballets Russes Symposium – Day 1 On Ives – 1


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