The Bolshoi Ballet Dances Carmen Suite and Petrushka

by Norm Robins

Carmen Suite is a ballet in one act created by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso.   The music was composed by Russian Rodion Shchedrin for his wife, one of the greatest ballerinas ever, Maya Plisetskaya.  It is was inspired by Bizet’s opera Carmen, both story and music.  The ballet was initially banned in the Soviet Union as “disrespectful” to the opera.  The Soviet Minister of Culture told the press, “We cannot allow them to make a whore out of Carmen, the heroine of the Spanish people.” She told the cast Carmen was “a great failure,” She called it, “…raw. Nothing but eroticism. The opera’s music has been mutilated. The concept has to be rethought. I have grave doubts as to whether the ballet can be redone.” Carmen was too modernist and too erotic.  It is probably for this reason that the ballet has been so popular in the West long after the Soviet Union has made its final exit.

In the story Carmen, a worker in a cigarette factory, is jailed for fighting with tobacco dealers.  While in jail she seduces the dragoon corporal Don José who releases her.  But Carmen is a coquette who takes pleasure where and when she finds it and has no loyalty to any man.  She has a brief affair with Don José.

This affair lasts until bullfighter Escamillo comes on the scene.  She quickly abandons Don José for Escamillo.

In the last scene Carmen dances with Don José, Escamillo, and Fate.  Fate is not kind to her.

Petrushka could not be more different from Carmen.  Both are one-act ballets, but the similarity ends there.  Gone is the eroticism both in music and dance.  Petrushka is a riot of Russian music, culture, and dance.  The story centers around a Magician whom for reasons unknown they call the Charlatan.  Perhaps something is lost in the translation.  The Magician has three life-sized puppets, a dashing Moor wielding a ferocious scimitar, a Ballerina who is an ingénue, and floppy Petrushka who seems to have a shortage of bones in his body.  Only a great dancer could pull that off.

The ballet opens with a market square scene at Shrovetide, three days before Ash Wednesday.  The scene is jovial and joyous with female dancers in traditional Russian costumes and Russian dancing more reminiscent of the Moiseyev Dance Company than the Bolshoi.  The Magician has a little theater set up at the edge of the square.  He opens the curtain and reveals his puppets.  They are supported under the arms by dowels.  But they come to life and dance for the crowd.

The Magician has put life into his puppets, perhaps too much life.  He has put emotions in them, too.  Petrushka cuts a sad figure.  He is in love with the Ballerina, but she spurns him for the dashing Moor.  In their chambers Petrushka hears the Moor and the Ballerina making love.  Mad with jealousy Petrushka rushes into the room.  The Moor turns angry at him and throws him out of the room.

The scene shifts back to the Shrovetide festival in the square.  The revelers have had a bit more to drink than in the earlier scene, and it shows.  Sobs come out of the Magician’s theater.  Petrushka and the Moor have been fighting.  The puppets run out into the square, and the Moor kills Petrushka with his scimitar.  The Magician tries to calm everyone down by showing them Petrushka is really just a puppet with a wooden head and stuffed with sawdust.  The revelers see that and accept it.  After everyone has left the square but the Magician, the ghost of Petrushka appears on the theater roof to mock the Magician for telling everyone he is merely a puppet, emotionless and inert.  No, he is not, not at all.

These performances will be shown at the Century Riverside 12 and the Century Summit Sierra for one day only on Sunday, May 19, 2019.  Curtain is at 12:55 PM, and the run time is 2 hours 20 minutes.

A Brief Biography of Maya Plisetskaya for Whom The Carmen Suite Was Created

by Norm Robins

It would be a shame to let this opportunity to write about Maya Plisetskaya go by unaddressed.  She was a remarkable woman with a remarkable story.  Here is hers.

She was born in 1925, 8 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, in Moscow to Lithuanian Jewish parents.  Her father was a Soviet official executed in 1938 during the Great Purge of the 1930s.  Her mother, an actress, was arrested in 1938 and held in a concentration camp.  In 1939 she was sent to the Camp of Wives of Traitors.  Of course, all charges were trumped up by the secret police as a part of Stalin’s purges.

Maya was adopted by her aunt Sulamith Messerer who was a principal ballerina at the Bolshoi.  Maya started studying at the Bolshoi Academy when she was nine years old.  She performed for the first time when she was eleven.  She graduated at age 18 and immediately joined the Bolshoi Ballet Company.  She soon became their principal soloist.  Nikita Khrushchev call her “not only the best ballerina in the Soviet Union, but the best in the world.”  She set the standard for other ballerinas.  She said a dancer’s torso and legs belong to the choreographer, but her arms and hands are her own.  Here she is dancing the dying swan in Swan Lake

Watch her use of her hands and arms.  This is quintessential Plisetskaya.  But her favorite role was Carmen in Carmen Suite composed by her husband Rodion Shchedrin.

For 16 years she was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union.  She was a Jew, and the Soviet paranoia was such that she was suspect and “non-exportable”.  She was publicly humiliated, and roles were denied to her by the Bolshoi.  Her performance as the dying swan was a defiant rebuke to the Soviet Union.  Her travel ban was lifted in 1959 on the insistence of Khrushchev.  The Bolshoi was going on tour and not allowing Plisetskaya to join them would have been severely frowned on by the members of the company.

After a long and illustrious career Plisetskaya died in Munich, Germany, in 2015.  She was 90 years old.

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