Petrouchka is a ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and set to the music of Igor Stravinsky. First performed in 1911, it is said to be one of the most revolutionary ballets of all time. After watching the video, I was able to fully appreciate its imagination and originality.
Traditionally, the art form of ballet is known for its gracefulness and beauty. Swan Lake is probably one of the most renowned examples of the romantic ballets in which a beautiful princess possessed by an evil force was transformed into a swan and finally rescued by a handsome prince. The most memorable scenes are perhaps those in which a corps of ballerinas dressed in flowing white tutus dance in unison. To me, the unity is mesmerizing. However, after watching just a few minutes of this video, I realized that Petrouchka was going to be decidedly different from the more traditional ballets.
The first thing that I noticed to be unconventional was the costume worn by the dancers on stage. Rather than wearing the more typical costumes such as tutus, the dancers wear costumes that are distinctly Russian, and most of the female dancers do not wear pointe shoes. Though modified for stage purposes, the costumes could very well be something that one would find at a busy Russian carnival during the 19th century. Just purely based on seeing the costumes, I already felt that Petrouchka was going to have a more down-to-earth feel to it.
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The thing that further solidified this feeling was the dancers’ movement. In the world of ballet, there is a very strict set of established movements. The movements are so standardized that each one has a name associated with it such as tendu, fondu, etc. Petrouchka is revolutionary in the sense that the choreographer was able to not only modify but introduce new movements in the dance. In the video, the one movement that immediately jumped out at me was one that was characteristic of Russian folk dancing. It is a movement in which a male dancer with his arms folded across his chests jumps from one leg to another in a squatting position. In my opinion, by incorporating folk dancing elements into ballet, Fokine was able to make ballet a more popular art form. He reinvented ballet from an exclusive art form for the aristocracy or the upper class to an art form for the general public.
In Petrouchka, Fokine judiciously used the style of movements to portray and define his characters. There are three main characters in the ballet, Petrouchka, the Ballerina, and the Moor. Petrouchka is a timid puppet who is in love with the Ballerina. To portray his shyness, Petrouchka’s movements are very slow and saggy. The dancer often falls to the ground or bends over to show the character’s spineless nature. I noticed that the dancer’s feet are almost always in a turned in position giving him a stiff, doll-like quality. To contrast Petrouchka’s somber and often pathetic appearance, the Ballerina is vivacious and often flirtatious, and to portray that, her movements are generally fast paced. Fokine used a lot of sharp movements such as pique and frappe in her dance to exhibit her energetic nature. The Moor is the self-absorbed one of the trio. He is portrayed as a physically strong, yet mentally impaired puppet. His movements are very large and exaggerated. In a rather comical scene, the Moor simply sits on the floor and devotes his full attention to playing with a coconut. Upon shaking it, he realizes that there is something inside it and attempts to open it, to no avail. In the Moor’s mind, because the coconut cannot be opened, it must have greater power than he; therefore, he places it on the floor and worships it as if it were a god.
The stage setting also helps to establish the different personalities of the characters. Petrouchka’s room is barren and dark. The set designer used cold tones such as blue and black to show the character’s lack of self-confidence. One prominent feature on the stage is a picture of the old wizard, which illustrates the level of control that the wizard has over Petrouchka. The painting is there to remind Petrouchka that he is merely a puppet and will never escape the wizard’s power. The Moor’s room is the exact opposite of Petrouchka’s. The Moor has a couch to lounge on, and the room also appears more spacious. The bright color scheme gives off a happy and luxurious atmosphere. The contrast between the Moor’s room and Petrouchka’s room is there to put emphasis on the dreariness of Petrouchka’s life.
Needless to say, the music is also an integral part of the dance. There exists an intimate bond between the music and the choreography. Music is audio, whereas dance is visual. A good piece of choreography is also a good interpretation and visual representation of the music. The score composed by Igor Stravinsky is, in my opinion, revolutionary in its own rite. Unlike the harmonious sounds of the compositions of his predecessors, in Petrouchka, there are many harsh and dissonant chords as well as sweet and jovial melodies. To me, the most memorable and haunting sounds are the blaring sounds played by the trumpets. Stravinsky also borrowed elements from Russian folk dance music to complete his score for the ballet.
Admittedly, the music is very difficult to understand, and I believe that it is also quite difficult to represent visually through choreography. For example, Petrouchka’s character has two sides to him: the human and the puppet. Both of these sides fight with each other throughout the ballet. Petrouchka wants to be free of the old wizard and love the Ballerina, but the fact that he is merely a puppet keeps him from accomplishing anything. The inharmonious chords are there to reflect Petrouchka’s inner struggle. Such profound imagery is captured in the ballet through its choreography.
Another piece of great choreography that I was fortunate enough to see was an excerpt from the ballet, Carmen, choreographed by Roland Petit to the music of Bizet. The excerpt is performed by arguably the world’s best male ballet dancer of all time, Mikhail Baryshnikov. I have always been a fan of Mikhail Baryshnikov. His super-human pirouettes always astound me, and I was not disappointed by any means after watching this clip. I was not only in awe of Baryshnikov’s tremendous physical prowess from beginning to end, I was also captivated by his portrayal of the character, Don Jose, a man in love who is consumed by jealousy, lust, and passion.
I feel that the video day was a rewarding experience. Because I am very much used to seeing the more traditional form of ballet, it was very enjoyable to see something different and see how ballet evolved into something new. Masters created these pieces of art decades ahead of their time. As an ever-changing art form, ballet will never stop reinventing itself in order to capture the hearts of the audience of generations to come.
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