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Review: NW Dance Project’s ‘Stravinsky’

The company offers its own take on composer Igor Stravinsky through an innovative pairing of two of his most famous ballets.

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(l-r) Lucia Tozzi, Anthony Pucci, and Quincie Bean in “Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Ihsan Rustem. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Nowadays, we are skeptical of the cult of genius. The logic goes that if great artists are indeed great, their greatness comes at someone else’s expense. Are commonly-accepted masterpieces still relevant today? Can you really separate the artist from the art? These questions guide NW Dance Project’s pairing of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, two canonical ballets by Igor Stravinsky, performed last weekend at the Newmark Theatre downtown. 

At the start of Petrushka, subtitled “A Contemporary Fantasia on Classical Themes,” Lucia Tozzi paces the stage in a shimmering emerald cocktail dress. She looks ready to share something important. And she does: this is not a traditional staging of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet about a love triangle involving three puppets brought to life, Tozzi informs us. That story would be too boring and, frankly, in 2023, too problematic. American productions of Petrushka have even used blackface for the “Moor” character as recently as 2015, as Tozzi points out. This contemporary fantasia, choreographed by Joseph Hernandez, offers a deeper exploration, blending lecture – a la Andrea Fraser – with dance-based performance art. 

Lucia Tozzi provides a monologue, accompanied by company dancers, in “Petrushka,” choreographed by Joseph Hernandez. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The show kicks off as the ensemble flurries across the stage to the opening lines of Stravinsky’s score. Tozzi sets the scene of snow falling down on St. Petersburg fairground. She swiftly delivers a synopsis of the entire ballet, describing Petrushka’s unrequited love for the Ballerina. The Ballerina, however, loves the Moor. Petrushka and the Moor engage in a dramatic confrontation, ultimately resulting in Petrushka’s demise. As Tozzi narrates, Ingrid Ferdinand portrays Petrushka’s lovesick desperation. Her movements are frantic and uncertain, as if she has just awakened from a deep slumber, discovering her extraordinary dance abilities. “Did you understand all that?” Tozzi asks, breathlessly, maybe 90 seconds later. Not entirely, but that’s not really the point. 

Michael Greenberg dances while Lucia Tozzi provides background narration in “Petrushka,” choreographed by Joseph Hernandez. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The narration, a blend of Hernandez’s writing and Tozzi’s improvisation, often strays from the storyline. Tozzi reminds us of Stravinsky’s support for Mussolini and his longing for more commissions from Nazi Germany, as well as his well-known “aversion” to communism and Judaism. She astutely points out the potentially fascist undertones, prompting us to wonder why we attend a performance of Petrushka in the first place. In the midst of this interlude, dancer Alejandra Preciado joyfully twerks and shimmies, creating a ludicrous, yet comically effective, contrast between the history lesson and exuberant dance. It’s refreshing to see the production doesn’t take itself too seriously. 

NW Dance Project’s Lucia Tozzi, Ingrid Ferdinand, Michael Greenberg, Jacob Beasley, Quincie Bean, and Alejandra Preciado in “Petrushka.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The ballet’s story eventually breaks free from Hernandez’s postmodern concept. Tozzi’s microphone turns off, and she continues to mime the narration unheard by the audience. Dance reclaims the stage in a captivating ensemble finale. However, the most captivating moment belongs to Hernandez’s postscript. Tozzi reemerges alone in a white, bloodstained dress — perhaps a mishap with the ballet’s infamous dancing bear backstage? To the haunting melody of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” Tozzi soberly glides, showcasing her movements for the first time. Stravinsky is absent, yet the potential reference to the bear could be a reflection of the ballet’s enduring power, despite Hernandez’s unconventional interpretation. Or perhaps it’s a simpler decision. As Tozzi previously remarked, “Who doesn’t love a costume change?”

Lucia Tozzi in “Petrushka,” choreographed by Joseph Hernandez. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Ihsan Rustem’s The Rite of Spring offers more familiar terrain. The bassoon sounds, and the curtain rises. No preamble or lecture, just dance. A monolithic halo hovers above the dancers and a white mask rests at the stage’s edge. Having tackled the “big questions” in the previous piece, the audience deserves a show free from didacticism.

Anthony Pucci and Ingrid Ferdinand in “Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Ihsan Rustem. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

While Hernandez’s composition stops and starts, commenting on the ballet (and its own commentary), Rustem’s Spring moves briskly. Set in a primordial, pagan world,  it involves tribes becoming one with the earth, culminating in a chosen one’s sacrificial dance. Only the contours of that story are present here, but Rustem, whose Bolero delighted audiences last fall, is a master in arranging bodies on a stage. Stravinsky’s infamously dense score, which caused riots at its 1913 premiere, flies by.

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(l-r) Ingrid Ferdinand, Lucia Tozzi, and Anthony Pucci in “Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Ihsan Rustem. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Anthony Pucci portrays the sacrificed. A returning guest dancer, Pucci is a force to reckon with. He is compelling even when still — made all the more so by lighting designer Jeff Forbes’ use of chiaroscuro, which makes all the dancers look like animated Greek statues. In the ballet’s final sequence, Pucci stands centerstage, surrounded by the ensemble. A steady stream of earth falls from the rafters onto him, in a kind of reverse-baptism. In a practiced stumble, Pucci darts between ensemble members, briefly caught before being pushed away. He continues until he runs out of dancers to hold onto, finally collapsing. The company’s costumes are stained by Pucci’s dirt-covered body, visually implicated in his death. 

Once again, NW Dance Project proves itself to be one of the most reliably imaginative dance companies in Portland. Both Petrushka and The Rite of Spring are compelling creations in their own right, but paired together they make a visually rich and thought-provoking evening. If Hernandez’s Petrushka questions whether Stravinsky is still worth producing in the 21st century, then Rustem’s Spring answers a resounding “Yes!” 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Max Tapogna writes about theater, music and culture for Oregon ArtsWatch. His writing has been published in Bloomberg Pursuits, Document Journal, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury, Crosscurrents Literary Magazine and more. As an actor, Max has had the pleasure of performing with companies like Shaking the Tree and Broadway Rose. Originally from Portland, Max currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
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