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Spectrum’s Petruchska is Immersive but Reductive

Written by Christin Call
Spectrum dancers in Petruchska
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
Spectrum Dance Theater is exploring love this season, in particular Donald Byrd’s musings and possible shifting perspectives about it.  What better way to explore that change than by reviving Byrd’s 2006 ballet Petruchska, itself a remake of the 1911 Russian ballet about carnie life and a puppet love triangle?  The current re-working opened April 13, 2012 at Spectrum’s Madrona Dance Studios.   Surprisingly, the narrative in this version stays closer to the original 1911 libretto and, in doing so, seems to reveal less of Byrd’s attitude about love and more about his artistic interests in expanding audience immersion, mobility, and participation.  

Byrd’s 2006 version took place in a nightclub and mosh pit.  The three puppets: Petruchska, Columbine, and the Moor, were goth/emo misfits under the brutal control of a sadist madame who abusively manipulated the relational dynamics between the three in order to exploit them sexually for commercial value.  Watching the cruelty of this behavior being passed down to Petruchska was a devastating experience, depicted with misanthropic fatalism that stayed with this reviewer powerfully for several days after its viewing.  In this closer-to-the-original version, that complexity and dimensionality have been discarded.  The characters are again actual puppets, and so Byrd’s handling of them is more playful and sometimes teeters on cartoonish.  The Charlatan puppet master, entertainingly portrayed by Donald Jones, Jr., fumbles about like a nervous car salesman and has no convincing power over his dolls. He can spy on them salaciously but can’t control their shenanigans. 

Unfortunately, this treatment also flattens the role of Petruchska himself, who, played unsurpassingly by David Alewine in 2006, was a truly tortured soul, deprived of love in any form, whether platonically, conjugally, or masturbatory—subject to almost unbearable-to-watch abuse both from the puppet master and the Moor.  Though Vincent Michael Lopez is an exquisite performer, the character he appears to have been given to play is not particularly interesting.  He is a lovesick simpleton who continues to pursue the object of his desire to violent extremes even when she has zero interest in his advances.

Rather than conclude that Byrd’s personal attitude about love has become simplified, it seems more likely that re-visiting this work is a means to further develop his investigations in moving away from the conventional proscenium-style performance setting.  In this respect Byrd has made considerable progress, and has even found some quite ingenious ways to reconsider the Spectrum studios as a site-specific, audience-engaging, immersive-theater space.  Central to this vision is making the audience double as the carnival-goers within the storyline.  The beach-side of the Spectrum building is turned into a real rag-tag carnival with hot dogs, popcorn, booth games, face-painting, and street performers.  The audience is shown and led through several rooms during the show, including the upstairs performance space and a security room with live video feedback of Petruchska’s and the Moor’s bedrooms.

It is here that, as is generally true of Byrd’s choreography, the work becomes the most sexually explicit and the most conceptually cohesive.  The audience, led to a large wall of screens showing several perspectives of Petruchska’s private heartaches, also peeks in on a private game of sexual roleplay between Columbine and the Moor.  The difference here is that the lovers know they are being watched, and through specific interactions with the video camera, show that they enjoy the audience’s complicit involvement.  The audience quickly discovers that the action they are watching is happening in realtime immediately beyond a fabric divider as grunts, gasps, and sounds of rustling bedsheets are clearly discernible. Yet, as close as the audience is to the narrative action, watching directly is not allowed—it’s viewable only by means of a filtered process.  The audience is both responsible for adding to the lovers’ pleasure and being controlled in their access to that pleasure, echoing in a broader sense the voyeuristic role an audience plays in tandem to performers.  It begs the question: how culpable is an audience in the unfolding of the performance experience?  Is it a dynamic that can be altered?  Though not a new idea (see Kim Jones’ performance in the 70’s where he doused rats inside a wire cage in lighter fluid and set them on fire), it is an important aspect of interactive performance that must be addressed, so it is encouraging to see that Byrd is at least at the tip of the iceberg.

One of the pleasures of viewing Byrd’s work, a mature and established choreographer who contrasts sharply in the midst of a city percolating with many fledgling and freshly emerging choreographers, is seeing how Byrd reacts to and re-invents the works in his own canon.  Though Petruchskais disappointing overall with some awkward scene shifting, slow pacing, and not enough dancing, it is rewarding to see the result of a creative mind that continues to challenge his own previous notions, processes, and approaches.  Hopefully Byrd will revisit Petruchska again at some point to bring back some of its former intensity while tightening and developing the immersive theater experience.

The current re-working is showing again this weekend (Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, 7:30 pm and 9 pm, Sunday, April 22n, 6:30pm) at Spectrum’s Madrona Dance Studios.  Tickets are can be purchased through Spectrum Dance Theater’s website: