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University of Iowa News Release

Oct. 11, 2004

UI's Thompson Reconstructs 'Petrouchka' For Joffrey Ballet Nureyev Tribute

When an orchestra director wants to perform a century-old masterpiece, all that is required is placing the right scores on the music stands. And when a theater director stages Shakespeare or Chekhov, passing out scripts is enough to launch the process.

But in dance, recreating productions of even some of the most famous historical ballets can be an enormous challenge. Dance notation is a relatively recent invention, and it remains a specialty rather than a basic skill. And before filming, and later videotaping, became commonplace beginning in the 1960s, roles were passed from dancer to dancer through demonstration and imitation. The dance repertory existed solely in the memories and muscles of choreographers, directors and dancers.

So when the Joffrey Ballet wanted to authentically restage the Michael Fokine/Igor Stravinsky 1911 classic, "Petrouchka," for their Oct. 13-24 Nureyev Tribute in Chicago's Auditorium Theater, they knew exactly who to call: University of Iowa dance faculty member Basil Thompson, the company's former ballet master and later the artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet. No one working in the dance world can boast fewer "degrees of separation" from the original production in Paris by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which featured Nijinsky in the title role.

"I performed in the ballet when it was done by the Royal Ballet in 1957, in a production that was staged by Lubov Tchernicheva and Serge Grigoriev, who was the ballet master for Diaghilev when Fokine created 'Petrouchka," Thompson explained. "That production was also checked by Polish/American character-dance specialist Yurek Lazowski, who had taken extensive notes when he worked on the final 'Petrouchka' production that Fokine personally staged, in the 1940s."

Then, during Thompson's 11 years as the Joffrey's ballet master, he and Lazowski, who had become close friends, staged the Joffrey's first production in the 1970s.

"What I'm trying to do is bring the work, as far as I can determine, as near as possible to the original," Thompson said. "It was one my favorite ballets, so I would watch it constantly, and with the Joffrey I was in charge of rehearsing it. So I knew a lot of the parts. And when Nureyev performed the title role with the Joffrey, it was televised, so I had access to that tape, as well as a Joffrey company tape of a performance in Los Angeles."

In a phone interview from Chicago, less than a week before the curtain rises on the Nureyev Tribute that recalls the company's connections with the legendary dancer, Thompson said the reconstruction process has been both exhilarating and exhausting. In addition to the company itself, the production will feature numerous supernumeraries, so that Thompson is responsible for nearly 60 performers during the crowd scenes. "It requires something more than a division but not quite an army," Thompson quipped to the Chicago Sun-Times.

"The Joffrey Ballet is such a good company and so professional, and the process itself is almost like baking a cake -- adding new ingredients at the right time and mixing them in," he said. "It is a layered process of bringing it up to a performance level."

In the studio, Thompson has been working up a strong appetite for his "Petrouchka" cake. "'Petrouchka' is not only a ballet but also a dance drama: The dancers have to be actors and that's the hard part," explained Thompson, who is considered a leading teacher of character dance. "I must have lost 10 pounds demonstrating during the last couple of weeks. My wife, Kitty, came into Chicago, took one look at me and asked, 'Have you been eating!?' Of course I HAVE been eating, but I had to be right in there physically every minute."

"A Nureyev Tribute" will open at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, with 10 performances through Oct. 24.

Nureyev, who has been described as "a dear friend" of the Joffrey Ballet, was one of the most influential dancers of the 20th century and has been credited with revolutionizing the role of the male dancer. His defection from the Soviet Union was a major news story that bridged art and politics in 1961.

This Joffrey celebration program features, in addition to "Petrouchka," two other works associated with the Nureyev legacy and his connection to the Joffrey: "Laurencia Pas d'Action," a work with Spanish flair excerpted from the Russian classic "Laurencia; and "Apollo," George Balanchine's masterpiece about the Greek god and his realization of his power. "Petrouchka" is the tale of an endearing and soulful marionette, whose hopeless love for a doll leads to murder.

Thompson was trained by the Sadlers Wells Ballet School and he began his performance career with the newly formed Covent Garden Opera Ballet. In 1955 he was transferred to the Sadlers Wells Ballet Co. (now the Royal Ballet), and with it he twice toured the United States.

He taught ballet in Los Angeles before joining American Ballet Theatre in 1960, performing extensively throughout the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Central and South America, and attaining the positions of soloist and rehearsal assistant.

In 1967 he joined the Joffrey Ballet as ballet master, working closely with Robert Joffrey during a time when the company was at a creative peak. His time with the Joffrey included the company's first visits to Hancher, in what would become a long and fruitful partnership. The Joffrey "Nutcracker," which had it world premiere in Hancher in 1987 and has become an annual mainstay of the company's repertory, will return to the UI this December.

In 1981 Thompson was invited to join Milwaukee Ballet as ballet master and for the next 19 years played a significant part in the artistic development of the company. He was appointed artistic director in 1995.

Thompson joined the faculty of the UI Dance Department in the spring of 2000, and he has restaged historical ballets for the UI Dance Company's Dance Gala productions in Hancher.

The Dance Department is part of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,