PORTLAND — A swift kick in the keister is the first thing that happens to whichever Stanley brother is dancing the title role in “Petrushka.”
In the original version of this classic Russian ballet, Petrushka the marionette comes to life and falls in love — and then discovers just how tragic life and love can turn out to be.
A new version that runs next weekend brings Petrushka home to 1950s Portland, and transforms our sentimental hero into a hopeful busboy in a swanky hotel. There may be some heartbreak here, but there’s also plenty of lively dancing, colorful costumes, fanciful humor and even a little uplift in the end.
“It’s a very cool show and it’s all new,” said Tyler Stanley, who alternates the title role with Joey Stanley, his identical twin brother. The 16-year-old brothers, who attend Camas High School, said they’ve been studying ballet since they were toddling.
“It’s a great community of people. Bonding is a big part of it,” Joey Stanley said. “You have to work really hard to get it to the level where it’s ready for the stage — ”
“But the team mentality, it’s such a thrill and there’s such a great payoff,” Tyler Stanley said, completing the thought.
Petrushka the busboy doesn’t do any bonding, and enjoys no team mentality. Over the course of the one-act performance, he gets roughed up and rejected by everyone — from the gorgeous chanteuse he yearns for, to the imposing beefeater of a doorman she seems to prefer. Poor Petrushka is left dancing with a hankie that his beloved dropped on the ground.
Recasting ballet dancing as real acting has been a challenge for the Stanleys, they agreed.
“Some roles are all about physical strength, but this one is more about depicting feelings,” Tyler Stanley said. “You’ve got to transmit sadness with every part of yourself. That takes practice.”
“We’re learned the dance steps forever, but this is drawing on emotions in a deeper way,” Joey Stanley said.
Fortunately, Tyler Stanley pointed out, the Petrushka in this new version, choreographed by Tom Gold, enjoys a happier fate than in the original — where he dies not just once, but twice.
“The original is a super tragedy,” Tyler Stanley said. “This one is much more fun.”
Much of the fun in this “Petrushka” comes from an imaginative rainbow of costumes — from flowery “Hawaiian Room” outfits for the ukulele band to a whole lineup of Portland Beavers baseball players who come barreling through — and then pause to twirl. Igor Stravinsky’s cinematic score keeps things dynamic and unpredictable. Most unpredictable of all is the final note of hope and love — look away and you’ll miss it — that seems to put a cherry on top of this sweet sundae of a story.
Refuge from rain
The Stanleys spent their earliest years in Astoria, where the weather is even rainier than it is here — or so the brothers say. When a new ballet studio opened in Astoria and their mom suggested winter-season classes, the 3-year-olds thought that sounded warm and sunny, they said.
The family moved to Camas when the brothers were 10 years old. They studied ballet at Evergreen Dance Studio, then moved to Portland Ballet, which had specific classes for boy dancers. The brothers haven’t thought twice about being males in what might seem like a feminine arena. Just the opposite, they say: Boys who learn to dance get really popular.
“I’d say guys who do this are really lucky,” Tyler Stanley said. “We don’t have to dance en point.” (That is, on the very tips of the toes, the way girls must routinely learn to do.)
“I think there are more jumps and turns for boys, and more partner work,” Joey Stanley said.
And, Tyler Stanley added with a laugh, there’s no sense of camaraderie quite like the self-conscious camaraderie of “wearing tights with a whole bunch of other dudes.” How do all those dudes pass moments of downtime at Portland Ballet? Fantasy football.
The brothers love ballet but don’t see it as their future, they say. They may be serious dance students, but they’re not nearly as serious as students who study dance every day. The brothers take classes at The Portland Ballet twice a week, they said, but they’re “very academic” too, Joey Stanley said, and assume they’re headed for careers in science and engineering.
“It’s fun to be well rounded,” Joey Stanley said. “We love ballet and we’re passionate about it, but it’s definitely a hobby.”
‘I got you, man’
Each brother took a turn in the title role a couple of Saturdays ago as The Portland Ballet ran two full dress rehearsals of “Petrushka,” one after the other, at its studio in the Hillsdale neighborhood. When one brother was performing, the other stood off to the side and followed along. When they had a few moments, the two pulled together to trade pointers about the role they share.
“We always work together and ask each other for insights,” Tyler Stanley. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘I don’t quite know how to do this or that,’ and the other’s like, ‘I’ve got you, man.'”
Sometimes the Stanleys were standing at opposite sides of the rehearsal room — which didn’t stop them communicating via facial expressions and small hand gestures. That seemed to be all it took to transmit detailed messages about moves and costumes.
Costumes were the significant challenge during that rehearsal. Busboy Petrushka is smartly outfitted in bow tie, white shirt, black slacks and apron. The brothers found that the white shirt bunched up in an odd-looking way and the apron threw off their balance a little.
“The costume made me mess up a few times,” Joey Stanley said. “It’s much harder to do in the costume than I thought. It’ll pull you forward, so be careful,” he told his brother.
Most of all, the brothers discovered, the pair of black slacks they shared split right up the back. Joey Stanley tore them first, then Tyler Stanley tore them more.
That’s what they were told to do by the company costumer, they laughed. “She said to rip it as much as we can, then she’ll fix them,” Tyler Stanley said.