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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

‘The Petrushka Project’ to bring together DSO and DDE

Over drinks one night last spring, Dartmouth Dance Ensemble co-director Rebecca Stenn and Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra Director Filippo Ciabatti discussed how ideal it would be for the two ensembles to work together. Each year, the DSO and DDE would have concerts on the same night, making collaboration impossible — but with enough planning for 2018, a joint performance could be possible.

Ciabatti knew what he wanted to perform: “Petrushka,” the Stravinsky ballet that brings a pair of Russian folk puppets to life. Stenn and DDE co-director John Heginbotham were soon on board with the idea. There was just one problem: the Hopkins Center for the Arts did not have a venue large enough to accommodate both the ensembles. Several options were considered, including an open concert on the Green, but an outdoor event ran the risk of bad weather.

Together with the production managers of the Hopkins Center for the Arts, they reached an innovative solution: the DSO would perform in Spaulding Auditorium, the DDE in Moore Theater, and the two performances would be connected by a live simulcast.

The simulcast is an exciting, never-before-done project for the DSO and DDE that required both new infrastructure and special staffing. Six fiber optic cables, each 350 feet long, were newly installed in both Spaulding and Moore specifically for “The Petrushka Project,” which will be performed tonight and tomorrow.

Because the two groups are not performing together in the same space, the main challenge of the performance is a technical one. Even in a live ballet with music and dancers in the same hall, it’s difficult to achieve flawless synchronization. In “The Petrushka Project,” processing equipment for sound and visuals will naturally add delay — an extra degree of difficulty. A delay in the sound reaching the Moore Theatre could cause the dancers to fall behind in responding to the music. And since dancers look to the conductor for cues through a live video feed, a delay could also cause dancers to see a cue unaccompanied by music, resulting in a dysfunctional performance.

According to recording engineer and Dartmouth lecturer Sang Wook Nam, the key to achieving an appropriate speed of sound was to use analog, rather than digital, sound equipment. Digital equipment adds delay because it requires digitization and processing of an analog signal, while analog equipment processes signals in real time.

It is a bit of irony that the older analog system makes simulcasting possible even though the technology as a whole is relatively new. Analog instruments have become a rarity in the last 10 to 15 years, and the performance venue did not have any analog consoles. Nam, who describes himself as “still the analog guy,” had to bring his own and rent additional consoles to use in Spaulding Auditorium.

New and old working together is powerfully echoed in the artistic direction of the project. Ciabatti characterizes “Petrushka” as the intermediate piece in the development of Stravinsky’s personal and Russian style. It is the bridge between the Western musicology of “Firebird” and the expressive maturity of “The Rite of Spring.”

“Stravinsky was researching, he was looking for new solutions,” Ciabatti said. “And out came a piece that is very fragmented in a way, that makes the music like a movie. [“Petrushka” is] a structured piece, but more naïve than the Rite of Spring.”

According to concertmaster Katie Wee ’19, the break from classical tradition was initially a challenge for members of the DSO.

“The rubato areas are where the tempo is relaxed and stretched in any way you want — you go with the feel,” Wee said. “Figuring that out was probably the hardest part. We had to make sure we are consistent, so that the dancers don’t have to guess where we are going next.”

Another part of Petrushka that attracted Ciabatti was the story told by the music. In the original ballet, a puppet named Petrushka is in love with a ballerina, but she rejects him for the far more powerful Moor.

“He is a psychologically complex hero, who lives a weird life, isolated, not understood, and dies in the middle of a complex and disappointing situation,” Ciabatti said. “Yet the soul of him remains. So the story doesn’t really end, but gets interrupted.”

Ciabatti believes that musical performances must adapt to a 21st century audience with easy access to cheap, high-quality music. However, he also maintains that music endures through time and must be rendered faithfully.

In contrast, Heginbotham and Stenn, who had danced to Stravinsky since their days at Juilliard, decided early on that they were not going to reproduce the original ballet. Instead, they gave themselves the freedom to reimagine a choreography that could diverge from the plot but remained deeply connected to the music and atmosphere. Heginbotham likened their creative process to a game of exquisite corpse, a surrealist composition technique where each artist draws a part of the whole based on clues left by the previous artist.

“Where [Stenn] ended is where I started, and from there I had to figure out where I was going to take it,” Heginbotham said. “It was a fun game. At the same time we gave each other permission to insert or play with our own ideas in the other’s choreography, so we were able to converse and not be rigid about it.”

While the two directors had very specific choreography based on contemporary modern dance, they also brought in the backgrounds of the dancers.

“John and I like to say, ‘Who is in the room, who [are] our cast members and what can they bring to the table?’” Stenn said. “And we often ask for the contributions from the cast. If they say, ‘Oh, I know classical Indian dance,’ we say, ‘Show us.’ And that’s how we brought them into the piece.”

The technical demands of the simulcast mean that several technicians also had to make artistic choices. The microphones used for DSO concerts are usually set high up to capture the conductor’s balance, but in “The Petrushka Project,” they would obstruct the view of the live transmission of the dance. To solve the problem, Nam positioned 40 individual microphones, one for each instrument. Using a mixer, he then recreated the balance based on what he thought the conductor would have intended.

The sound then enters Moore in its uncompressed form.

“That is pure sound, coming as they are hearing it over there,” said Keely Ayres, senior production manager at the Moore Theater. “The louds are really loud and quiets are really quiet, so our sound engineer Todd Hendricks is going to be monitoring that to make sure it’s not too piercing, and that we are not missing anything on the low end.”

The simulcast amplifies individual performers in both theaters.

“The camera zooms in on dancers, and you never know when you are going to be zoomed iN on,” DDE member and biology lecturer Jessica Trout-Haney said. “At any moment, you could be the soloist on the screen. A couple of times somebody would scratch something, and you can’t get away with any of that. It might be a good thing because it keeps you in performance mode, as any details might be blasted.”

In each venue, the simulcast performance of “The Petrushka Project” will be the second act. For the first act, each ensemble will perform works independently. The DSO will perform a short piece called “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant” by Stravinsky and two short pieces by Ravel. The DDE will perform “Petrushka Papers,” a theatrical dance piece which will serve as a narrative complement to the more abstract “Petrushka.”

Elise Wien ’17, commissioned to write the script, noticed parallels between Petrushka’s character and Vaslav Nijinsky, who portrayed the original Petrushka. For her, the collapse of Petrushka is intertwined with Nijinsky’s own mental illness and his highly toxic relationship with the controlling impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Wien’s script was further developed by students of the class Theater 29, “Dance and Theater Performance,” which was taught by Stenn and Heginbotham this spring,

Viewed one way, the simulcast compensates for the lack of an ideal venue but sacrifices the authenticity and accuracy of having both ensembles under one roof. Viewed another way, the simulcast can add something by highlighting the conversation that takes place between ensembles. “The Petrushka Project” promises to be a feast for the senses that is highly aware of its time.

Wien is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff.