REVIEW: Petrushka (Game, Set, Match)

Award-winning choreographer Scott Elstermann presented his creative and energised reworking of Igor Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet Petrushka at the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre of WA. Elstermann and his team breathed new life into the old, wooden Petrushka by pitting him against the Moor in an imagined tennis match umpired by the Ballerina, all under the spell of the fearsome Magician. The traditional Russian folklore-inspired costumes, sets, and tropes of the original ballet have been replaced by a corps of lemon-lime-hued ‘Ballkids’, some daring acrobatics, and a wacky surprise ending.

Elstermann keeps the love triangle at the heart of Petrushka intact, but in his version, the Ballerina (Laura Boynes) is an umpire who is smitten with one player, the Moor (Tyrone Earl Lrae Robinson), and therefore calls the match ever in his favour over the other player, Petrushka (David Mack), leaving him distressed, distraught, and cursing the Magician (Bernadette Lewis). Each loss on the court triggers a tantrum of sorts from Mack, as he contorts himself and gesticulates with agitation. Mack’s movement is strong, but rigid and angular, which contrasts to the more fluid and undulating movement from Robinson. This contrast between the two suitors lends itself to the Ballerina’s preference for the Moor within the narrative, and Elstermann has cast and choreographed very well to illustrate this.

Credit: Daniel Grant Photography

Boynes as the Ballerina steals every scene in which she’s brought to life. She knows how to create easy connections with her partners on stage, and does so just as effortlessly with the audience. A little wink here, a well-timed toot on the umpire’s whistle there, and we’re under her spell just as much as she’s under the Magician’s. Lewis takes her role as the puppet master very seriously, shooting out fiery looks to the Ballkids, storming across the stage, and wickedly conducting the puppets’ movements from atop the umpire’s chair. Although narratively not opponents, Boynes and Lewis serve (pun unintended) as another contrasting pair in Elstermann’s world, thus achieving a symmetry that befits the setting.

Credit: Daniel Grant Photography

The Ballkids, a corps of six LINK dancers (Emily Coles, Briannah Davis, Jo Omodei, Bianca Perrone, Giorgia Schijf, and Emily Tuckwell), whose bouncy, fluorescent uniformity sets the tone, mostly bookend the story. They fall in line with optimism and pride, they cower and disperse in fear of the Magician, and they achieve the precision as a corps to give an impression of a synchronised swimming team or perhaps even the Harlem Globetrotters when tennis balls become part of the choreography. And in every group, ‘there’s always one’ – here, the last ballkid in the line rounds each corner with an expression of goofy, open-mouthed bliss that makes the audience chuckle.

Building on his precedent of works full of whimsy, humour, and striking visual moments, Elstermann puts a truly unique stamp on this classical ballet. While it may have benefitted the work to remove all reference to race entirely in the updating, Elstermann’s take on Petrushka is fresh and dynamic, and there is not a single dull moment to be found. In fact, the only disappointment to be found in Petrushka (Game, Set, Match) is that the work is not nearly long enough. Another round, anyone? Yes, please.

Credit: Daniel Grant Photography