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Abstract Stagecraft

Photo of the Ballerina in Basil Twist's 'Petrushka' by Richard Termine.

Basil Twist’s Petrushka opens not with Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka but with his Sonata for Two Pianos. The imagery that Twist creates in this prelude section is abstract. Flat geometric objects move in response to the movements of the music. The effect is mesmerizing but for many audience members it may be difficult to watch. In conversation with some audience members following the show, I was struck by how theater-going audiences have a hard time embracing abstract work. It left me wondering why it isn’t more accepted or produced. Abstract visual art has become popularized in the course of the past century. We can accept dances that lack a traditional story structure when seen in the context of Modern or Urban dance styles. Yet on the Lansburgh stage, filled with audience’s memory of theatrical storytelling, the non-verbal, non-storied, non-representational feels foreign and, in the case of some viewers, off-putting.

I’ve studied Futurist theatre in past but had not made the leap to equate the work that Basil Twist (a contemporary artist) is doing with the work of Italian artists almost a hundred years ago. It took me asking some friends my questions about abstract theatre to be reminded that at the start of the 20th century, artists were questioning the need for story in performance. As I looked closer I wondered if Twist’s work in the Sonata for Two Pianos is paying homage to the Futurists.* If so, it would be a fitting connection since Stravinsky fell into the same artistic milieu. In fact, Futurist artist Giacomo Balla staged Stravinsky’s Fireworks for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in April 1917. The production was without actors; it contained only lighting effects.

In 1915 in his Futurist Scenography Enrico Prampolini wrote about the need for the design elements of the stage to “arouse in the spectator those emotional values that neither the poet’s words nor the actors gestures can evoke.” This desire for design to be an active role in the creative process is still something designers are fighting for on modern stages. When production designs succeed (of which we have had many at STC) it is because there is a realization that the physical world of the play helps to create the audience’s reaction. There is emotion and story built into the way we perceive color and shape. Prampolini took these thoughts a step further, he desired not just respect for designers but he wanted them running the show. He proposed a mechanized system of “uncolored electromechanical architecture… that would be illuminated by moving and changing colored lights” to replace the actors on stage.

While watching Sonata it is possible to imagine the uncolored shapes, which move under colored lights in many hues, as being a realization of Prampolini’s Futuristic desires. But of course, it is not. There are artists behind the shapes, each one a well-trained puppeteer doing a well-choreographed dance. Abstract imagery incorporates itself well into puppetry. The medium as a blending of forms incorporates visual art, dance and theatre. It makes sense that the remnants of Futurism show themselves in this form. Even though it may hold a debt to the manifestos of the Futurists it still is a form of theatre. Basil Twist, though a visual artist and choreographer, is still a storyteller. Part of the story he is telling in Petrushka is of another artistic time. In the Sonata he is setting up how the audience hears Stravinsky’s music and how they will experience the tale of a puppet’s desire for self-realization.

*This would be a great question to ask at the FREE Conversation with Basil Twist on Thursday, March 22 at 8pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

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