Review by Emily Smith
You don’t need to be an expert on dance, ballet, or even tennis to enjoy Petrushka (Game, Set, Match) at the State Theatre Centre of WA.
In a brilliant stroke of modernisation Scott Elstermann takes the highly emotional, competitive story of Sergei Diaghilev’s 1911 ballet, Petrushka, and makes it a high-stakes tennis match. The show retains the traditional elements of ballet, like no spoken words and Stravinsky’s original score, but the ballet-inspired dance is firmly contemporary, and the pace never lets up.
The programme explains Diaghilev’s original plot, which takes place in a fair with a Magician controlling puppets who are entangled in a love triangle. Elstermann’s version makes Petrushka and The Moor – the rival lover-puppets – into tennis players who compete for the championship and for the heart of the Ballerina/Umpire. All three are, as in the original, puppets brought to life by the formidable Magician, played masterfully by Bernadette Lewis. Some of my favourite scenes were when she waved her hands to wake up the puppets and force them to perform the way she wanted, suppressing their individual desires with a brutal flourish.
The game is supported by what the programme delightfully calls a ‘corps de ballkids.’ Six fluorescent yellow, flap-capped ballkids pull the players, lifeless, into position before the Magician wakes them up and, cheer on poor, losing Petrushka from the sidelines despite quaking under the Magician’s glares. They are great fun to watch, identical in their comically bright outfits, and they hit every mark. Even when they incorporated actual tennis balls into their dance, which I was sure would end in chaos, they all bounced in unison.
The rivalry for love and the trophy is the plot’s real draw, and with the Magician blatantly fixing the tennis match and the love match in The Moor’s favour we are firmly on Petrushka’s side. David Mack’s Petrushka is comic, pitiable, and displays Mack’s strength and talent. His puppet physique is floppier, like a ragdoll, whereas Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson’s style is more clockwork as The Moor. The sequence where Robinson included his tennis racquet in his dance, climbing around it like a contortionist and even doing a bend-back with the handle in his mouth (my heart was in mine) was mesmerising to watch.
Laura Boynes also shined as the Ballerina/Umpire, especially when she danced while held up on the feet of the other three. Her cartwheels, bend-backs, and splits, all while never touching the floor, elicited frequent rapid applause from the audience, not dissimilar to the polite, unobtrusive applause from the stands after a point is won in tennis.
I would not count it as a spoiler to reveal that the show ends with Petrushka’s death, considering the story has been around for more than a century and it is included in the programme, but I will leave you to discover how they include Petrushka’s ghost. The solution will have you gasp and crow with laughter, as I did. It’s great to see a dance production with such extraordinary talent all round that still doesn’t take itself too seriously.
As a newcomer to the world of dance and ballet (I have seen exactly two professional ballet productions to date) I found no prior experience or knowledge was required of me from Elstermann’s gorgeous show. The dancing is incredible, the plot is simple enough to follow yet never becomes dull, and there are none of the gratuitously long solos of your large-scale ballet productions that go on forever and bore the layman viewer. The whole show, capped at 45 minutes, was the perfect amount of time to keep my attention for every second.