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STAGE REVIEW

This ‘Petrushka’ is magic on a string

The duet between the Ballerina and the Moor in “Petrushka.’’ The duet between the Ballerina and the Moor in “Petrushka.’’
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2010

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Basil Twist’s “Petrushka’’ is all about enchantment. In this extraordinary celebration of imagination, Twist and his company of nine nearly invisible puppeteers invite the audience to shift their focus from reality to something just a little bit more fuzzy and romantic. In a compact, 60-minute show, Twist takes us into a world where a billowing curtain can be as dramatic as a ballerina’s arabesque, and where disembodied puppeteer’s hands transform from overbearing manipulators to undulating bird-like creatures.

“Petrushka,’’ which is playing at the Paramount Theater in a joint presentation by the Celebrity Series and Arts Emerson, is a delightful melange of Stravinsky’s music, and the legendary Ballet Russes choreographer, Michel Fokine, who staged it. In the original ballet, the dancers played puppets that come to life and in this version, the puppets dance when they come to life.

Since Stravinsky’s music is just 35 minutes long, Twist creates a curtain raiser with the Sonata for Two Pianos and the Theme with Variations. This allows the audience to adjust to seeing two pianists — Russian twins Julia and Irina Elkina — play “Petrushka,’’ music originally written for a full orchestra, and invites us into a world that celebrates the complexity of music and the story, while paring it down to its essentials.

The performance opens with a series of abstract shapes coming together, pulling apart, emerging out of utter darkness and disappearing again, all within the confines of a gilded proscenium frame as Stravinsky’s music shifts from spritely short melodies to fluid, dramatic themes. The rectangles, squares, and triangles float about, form a circle, spin around, and then fade away, to be replaced by a crowd of recognizable Russian towers that swoop in, followed by dancing chickens and a collection of musical instruments, as we start to zoom in on the carnival setting of “Petrushka.’’ The progression from abstract shapes to living things culminates in the appearance of puppets clearly held up by strings, which, with the fall of a curtain, become the lifesize Moor, Ballerina, and Petrushka of the ballet’s tale.

In the hands of Twist’s puppeteers, who work in the Japanese bunraku style, all of the emotional power of the sad love story is revealed: the goofy Petrushka longs for the beautiful, coquettish Ballerina, who is repulsed by his over-eager behavior. With impossible leaps and spins, she woos the exotic Moor, whose eyes glow and muscles bulge, and who is so skilled with his scimitar he can slice a coconut and then lean back and drink the milk (an elegant moment for a puppet).

Wracked by jealousy, Petrushka breaks in on the lovers, only to be hunted down by the Moor. During the chase, a giant bear appears with a snapping jaw and frightening claws, but Twist cleverly places him on a red ball, bringing us back to the imagery of the carnival where the ballet takes place.

Although we see him fall with the Moor’s knife in his back, the Petrushka of folklore is immortal, and so the puppet appears above the proscenium and in the audience to let us know he will carry on.

Just as Twist’s imagery begins to feel a little too surreal, a puppeteer’s arm is exposed, or wires become visible. It’s just enough to remind us how delicate the spell is and how potent the magic can be.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

PETRUSHKA Ballet with puppets, created and directed by Basil Twist.

Inspired by the Ballet Russes, choreographed by Michel Fokine, music by Igor Stravinsky.

Pianists, Julia and Irina Elkina. Lighting, Andrew Hill. Puppet couture, Mr. David.

Presented by Arts Emerson and the Celebrity Series of Boston at the Paramount Theatre through Nov. 21.

Tickets: $25-$79. 617-824-8000, artsemerson.org.