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Igor Stravinsky Overview

born: 1882
born in: Oranienbaum, Russia
died: 1971
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was a Russian-born composer, considered by many to be the most influential composer of 20th century music. He was a quintessentially cosmopolitan Russian who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of... [more]

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Grace at the End of His Fingertips

ARTS AND LEISURE DESK DANCE; By VALERIE GLADSTONE (NYT) 1424 words Published: April 29, 2001 FOR more than a year, in the dark basement of a small Greenwich Village brownstone, the puppeteer Basil Twist has been reimagining Stravinsky's poignant ballet ''Petrouchka,'' originally choreographed by Michel Fokine for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1911. In his cramped eight-foot-square work space, piled high with cartons of old, cherished puppets, Mr. Twist has immersed himself in the exhilarating score, searching for inspiration for his own ''Petrouchka,'' which will have its world premiere at the Clark Studio Theater on May 1 through 13, as part of Lincoln Center's New Visions series. The Stravinsky score, in a version for two pianos, will be played by the Russian twin sisters Irina and Julia Elkina, who as an introduction will also play Stravinsky's Sonata for Two Pianos. It was the huge success of Mr. Twist's breathtaking underwater version of Berlioz's ''Symphonie Fantastique'' in 1999 at the Here Theater Complex in SoHo that won him his current assignment. ''I was bowled over by Basil's work,'' said Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president of programming. ''He seemed perfect for our new series, which brings together the worlds of theater and music. He's taking puppetry into a whole other realm.'' Late last month, Mr. Twist was spending a good deal of time analyzing videotapes of his workshop performances that he had just put on at the Walker Center in Minneapolis. Perched on a stool, with the gangly puppet Petrouchka lying limply next to him on his desk, he said, ''This time I wanted to create an old-fashioned puppet show, something entirely different from the abstraction of 'Symphonie Fantastique.' '' At 31, this lithe, dark-haired puppeteer, wearing a green turtleneck shirt, baggy black pants and heavy boots, looked very much the part of downtown artist. But he also projects an innocent, childlike quality, perhaps crucial to his artistry. ''I'd thought about Stravinsky because I wanted to use a 20th-century composer,'' he said, ''and I knew 'Petrouchka' because of the puppet theme. But my work is too intimate for an orchestral piece.'' After much digging, he came across the two-piano version. ''I thought 'bingo'!'' he recalled. ''It all came to me at once. I saw two pianos facing each other across the stage as a beautiful way to frame the action and integrate the music with the performance.'' While a student at the distinguished Advanced National School of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France, in the early 1990's, Mr. Twist and his fellow classmates put on ''Petrouchka,'' which is based on the story of three puppets -- the clown Petrouchka, the dashing Moor and the alluring Ballerina -- who briefly come to life in a tragic love triangle. But Mr. Twist said he had always been disappointed by the Fokine ballet. ''With dancers pretending to be puppets, it's not a particularly pretty dance,'' he said, ''nor is the choreography very imaginative. It's robotic, a reduction of the human body. That's not my idea of puppets at all. I think of them as idealized human beings, capable of great freedom of movement and expression. So I got all excited about making this a fantastic show with gorgeous and extraordinary puppets and the Ballerina performing steps a human ballerina only wishes she could do.'' Mr. Twist painstakingly constructed his new characters out of wire, foam, wood, flexible tubing hoses and hinges, using felt to create their distinctive faces. They first came to life in the second room of his cave-like work space, where he figures out ideas on a makeshift stage with his nine-member troupe. In the style of traditional Japanese bunraku puppet theater, three puppeteers manipulate with their hands each four-foot-tall puppet; its eyes move, eyebrows rise, mouth opens and shuts, hands and arms gesture realistically. One puppeteer controls the head and pelvis, the second manipulates the arms, and the third the feet, forming a kind of pyramid behind the puppet. Outfitted head to toe in black velvet and hidden by special lighting -- staging techniques of Czech black theater -- the puppeteers are invisible to the audience. ''Since the 60's,'' Mr. Twist said, ''it's been popular for puppeteers to be visible. Though it's harder to hide everyone, I much prefer illusion.'' Displaying a large, white cardboard circle, he said: ''I use lots of circles. I attach them to long sticks, and the puppeteers manipulate them so they look like they are spinning -- an effect I use between scenes. It's sort of hypnotic, things going round and round, like in a fairground. I hear that in the opening music.'' He plans to use other abstract elements, like big flowers, again on sticks, which his troupe will arrange in different patterns. Turning up the Stravinsky score that had been playing softly in the background, he said, smiling, ''Listen, here come the chickens.'' It did sound like a march for chickens. ''So, I thought, well, at this point, let's have little chicks strut across the stage,'' he said. Mr. Twist's passion for puppetry could almost be said to be genetic. His grandfather, Griff Williams, a big-band leader in the 1930's and 40's, loved puppets. At the close of his shows he would bring out string puppets, suavely dressed in tuxedos, and manipulate them on top of the piano, so that with their little batons it looked as if they were leading the orchestra. Although his grandfather died before Mr. Twist was born, his grandmother, Dorothy Williams, gave him those puppets when he was 10. ''It sort of sealed the deal,'' he said. His mother, Lynne Twist, had already introduced him to her father's sideline by establishing a small puppet company with several other women while he was growing up in San Francisco. He also got a good dose of the Muppets on television. After briefly attending Oberlin College in Ohio, Mr. Twist discovered the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts, where he interned for three months before coming to New York in 1989. As it turned out, however, he got much more work here as a busboy than as a puppeteer and was about to try college again when he learned of the French school of puppetry, where he became the only American to win acceptance into its three-year training program. Since graduating in 1993, he has performed with the innovative puppet artists Roman Paska and Julie Taymor, built and directed puppetry for Mabou Mines, and presented his own shows in Russia and Ireland. By early April, Mr. Twist had moved his rehearsals from the Village to the Upper East Side and then to an abandoned bank building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with ceilings 20 feet high and immense windows giving onto the river. There, he could use all his props. In a recent rehearsal the puppeteers took their places on a platform inside the 22-foot-by-40-foot stage, set up in the middle of the room. Given the tight space and the need to move quickly and efficiently, they must have the skills of dancers, and in fact, Christopher Williams, who controls Petrouchka's head and pelvis, studied ballet and modern dance at Sarah Lawrence College and assisted Mr. Twist with the choreography. ''Sometimes, it's like directing traffic back here,'' Mr. Williams said, as they got into position. Over the course of the show, they continually move back and forth across the stage, sometimes even briefly taking over partial control of another puppeteer's character. AS Mr. Twist switched on a tape, the puppets flew into the air to the lively rhythms of a joyous Russian dance. The Moor, his head swathed in a purple turban and gold jewelry sparkling on his bare chest, did a royale, his green and gold trousers shimmering as he jumped. The Ballerina and Petrouchka expertly and un-self-consciously spun into pirouettes, still dressed in their underclothes. Working with Mr. Twist, the costume designer known as Mr. David was finishing the Ballerina's elegant gold lace tutu and Petrouchka's red and blue checkered pants and tasseled blue hat, modeled after Nijinksy's in the original Ballets Russes production. ''I thought I'd only use these puppets for rehearsals and make new ones for Lincoln Center,'' Mr. Twist said. ''But now we love them very much, so I just keep replacing their parts when they become damaged.'' Glancing at them fondly, he whispered, ''How could I do otherwise?''

Playing a Serious Game of Twister

DANCE; Playing a Serious Game of Twister By VALERIE GLADSTONE (NYT) 921 words Published: July 20, 2003 SHEN WEI'S choreography for his new work, ''The Rite of Spring,'' represents an intersection of two of his passions: dance and painting. When the dance is presented at the Lincoln Center Festival this week, it will be performed on a 42-by-46-foot abstract painting created by Mr. Shen that looks like a giant game board with randomly crisscrossed brush strokes. At a recent rehearsal in Brooklyn, he discussed his ideas for the piece with his dancers. The studio floor was marked with white lines, Mr. Shen said, to correspond to the brush strokes on the canvas. (The actual canvas would be used only for performances.) The lines indicated where the dancers were to take certain positions, almost like a blueprint. ''The painting, music and dance all work together,'' he said. The dancers began by taking slow, small, measured steps to the center of the studio, as if taking part in a mysterious ritual. Wearing gray-toned pants and T-shirts or filmy dresses and leotards, they seemed held by the energy of the Stravinsky score. Then, suddenly, they were falling, spinning and leaping into the air, even crawling on all fours. They became still as statues, only to slither into contorted positions corresponding to the music's jagged rhythms. After seeing the half-completed work performed last year at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times, ''It is hard to recall anyone else who has responded to the music with such striking, stripped-to-the-bone abstraction as Mr. Shen has.'' ''This is imagery and conceptualism with a difference,'' she added. The audience, she said, seemed momentarily stunned, and a silence was followed by a prolonged ovation. On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, New Yorkers will get a chance to see the work in its entirety at La Guardia High School, where an exhibition of Mr. Shen's paintings inspired by his ''Rite of Spring'' will be on display. After the rehearsal, Mr. Shen, 35, an elegant and soft-spoken man, offered the dancers criticism. He told them to be careful not to reveal their reactions to the music with their facial expressions. To create an otherworldly effect, they perform with their bodies and faces covered by white body paint. ''We aren't telling a story,'' he said. ''This is about the music's structure.'' A painter and a sculptor, Mr. Shen developed his aesthetic growing up in Hunan Province, China. Until leaving home at 9 to study opera at the prestigious Hunan Arts School, he lived in a building that housed the theater where his father directed and acted in opera. His mother was also a theater producer. In 1991, after a brief stint with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company, he became a founding dancer and choreographer of the Guangdong Dance Company, China's first modern-dance troupe. He also studied calligraphy. ''I wasn't taught the arts separately,'' he said, ''so I don't separate them in my work.'' Mr. Shen saw his first Western modern-dance performance in 1986. ''I was shocked,'' he said. ''It was so creative. So much closer to my generation than anything we had.'' On his own, he started studying Western art history, painting and sculpture. But even with his growing passion for Western culture, he might have remained in China if the government had not disapproved of his dances, particularly ''1994, Beijing Summer,'' in which he unfavorably compared China with more democratic nations. Aided by a scholarship from the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab, he moved to New York in 1995. ''It's the center of high culture and the arts,'' he said. ''I wanted to open myself up to all of it.'' Once here, Mr. Shen quickly caught the attention of the dance world, winning commissions from Alvin Ailey Dance Theater II and other companies and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and American Dance Festival. Charles L. Reinhart, the president of the festival, which commissioned ''The Rite of Spring'' and other dances by Mr. Shen, met him in 1999. ''I knew he was more than a shooting star and would hang around in the heavens,'' Mr. Reinhart said. ''His works are overwhelmingly beautiful.'' In 2001, Mr. Shen established the 12-member Shen Wei Dance Arts company in New York. He has not forsaken his heritage. ''There are subtle things that I've taken from China that influence how I think about life,'' he said. ''I see simple things as very beautiful and recognize the power of silence and stillness.'' He choreographed the ravishing ''Folding,'' a work inspired by the folding drapes of costumes and set to music by John Taverner and Tibetan Mahakala Buddhist melodies. The dancers wear brilliant red ballgowns that come halfway up their torsos. (It will also be on the Lincoln Center program.) He has again created powerful images by using his dancers as a visual artist would. ''I think of them as living sculpture and colors in my palette,'' he said. ''My work isn't about real life,'' he added, ''or about being Western or Eastern. I'm exploring the unknown. I'm looking for a new way to communicate.'' Photo: Members of Shen Wei Dance Arts performing Mr. Shen's ''Rite of Spring'' at the American Dance Festival. (Bruce R. Feeley for The New York Times
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