Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer warmly invite all of us to “meet Karpovsky” at Wellington’s Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre and Willow Productions present:
A dance-drama devised and written by Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer
Directed by Sue Rider

Sylvia Morton (Helen Moulder)
Alexander Karpovsky (Sir Jon Trimmer)

Music by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Adam, JS Bach, Hérold (arr.Oliver), Weber (arr.Berlioz), Lincke

Original design – David Thornley (stage) / Philip Dexter (lighting)
Lighting – Deb McGuire
Sound recording – Joe Hayes

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Wednesday, 6th November 2019 (until 16th November)

I thought, both for myself and for the readers of “Middle C”, I’d explore the colourful genesis of Circa’s current production “Meeting Karpovsky”, as it was something I for one knew very little about, having not seen the original 2002 production. It all came about through actress Helen Moulder wanting to bring to fruition a long-held desire to be able to dance with Sir Jon Trimmer, the doyen of New Zealand ballet dancers – she then shared her idea for a “woman admirer meets famous dancer” scenario with Cathy Downes, director of the Court Theatre in Christchurch, who encouraged her to get in touch with Sir Jon and get something going. So, late in 2001 she contacted Trimmer, and to her delight received an interested and enthusiastic reply, as she did also from Australian director Sue Rider with whom she had previously worked (and whom Court Theatre were keen to have working there). So, with the participants, director, and venue sorted, and technical support, funding applications and projected dates set in place, what was then urgently needed was the actual play!

Gradually the scenario, along the lines of the original idea, took shape between actor, dancer and director, the title evolving from “The Woman and the Dancer”, through “Sylvia Fantastique” to “Meeting Karpovsky” (a fictitious name and character), the woman talking and the dancer communicating with “mime, dance and stillness”. Pictures of Trimmer (as Karpovsky) in “his most famous roles” were used to flesh out both the life-story of the woman,  Sylvia Morton, and the career of the dancer. Additional elements, such as the numerous boxes piled up in the room, and containing things such as a willow-pattern tea-set, found their place in the presentation’s unfolding. And, of course, there was the music, with excerpts from the ballets depicted in the posters taking pride of place in turn with other excerpts occasioned by different references, for example to the ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Reviews at the time were unhesitating in their praise of the presentation – worth quoting is that from the Listener of November 23rd 2002: –  “Moulder is remarkable as the helpless, hopeless Sylvia. She has a luminous quality and imbues the unworldly Sylvia with a rare beauty and charm. Trimmer plays Alexander Karpovsky with delicate grace. He glides silently, elegantly around the stage, tender as a love poem and replete with compassion and kindness. Together, they are magnificent: she a jittery, wounded gazelle gambolling alongside his sure dance of love and understanding”.

Moulder and Trimmer then toured New Zealand with the play in 2003/4, the production winning “The Listener Best Play” and Moulder the “Chapman Tripp Actress of the Year” awards. The production returned to Circa and then to some North Island venues in 2012 before touring the whole country with “Arts on Tour” in 2015.  This current Circa season of eleven performances is to commemorate Sir Jon Trimmer’s 80th birthday. From what we saw this evening no-one could guess as to the play’s extended performance history, everything seeming freshly-minted, and wrought out of impulses whose histories appeared to us to enliven and quicken the senses rather than weigh down and bedraggle the responses or blunt their edges.

Technically, the play is superbly presented, firstly at the very outset and then frequently and startlingly punctuated with disturbingly visceral sequences of sounds of trains passing, as it were “through the middle of the house”, a technical tour de force of evocation, though one felt the intention was more a psychological than a physical assault, akin to an inward cry of terror or scream of pain inflicted by a recurring memory or nightmare. Otherwise the darkness seems to be cultivated as a benign element rather than anything forbidding, especially as it brings the dancer, Alexander Karpovsky, into the room where Sylvia Morton is engaged in an endless struggle with her minutae, her memories and her demons.

Helen Moulder’s comprehensive ownership of her character draws us inexorably into Sylvia’s chaotic world criss-crossed with invisible strands she spontaneously activates, which in turn resonate others, often with through-line gentleness, but at other times with disconcerting, even panic-stricken switches of impulse. These invisible strands are woven through and around each of the large posters of Karpovsky dressed for his most famous roles, which Sylvia refers to in turn during the play’s action – thus she equates her hero Karpovsky with the charismatic Herr Drosselmeyer from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, compares her relationship with her own daughter Anna to that of the Widow Simone’s and her daughter’s from “La Fille Mal Gardee”, sees the character of Albrecht, in “Giselle” as similar to that of Charles, her husband, who betrayed her, and identifies with the pain and sufferings of  the puppet Petroushka in Stravinsky’s eponymous ballet.

Sir Jon Trimmer’s equally remarkable assumption of the all-but-silent role of Alexander Karpovsky created the perfect foil for Moulder’s unilaterally besieged characterisation of the beleaguered Sylvia. His aspect was at once the personification of some kind of spontaneous extra-terrestrial whim, and a true figure for the ages, albeit one entirely without a baleful or sinister aspect – a “quality of stillness” instead conveyed his importance, if at first in a truly open-ended way. Dancers are, of course used to such meaningful conveyance, deprived as they are of the use of speech, and, like artists of mime, having to conjure meaning without words. Trimmer’s was a veritable “master-class” in this respect, including that enviable art of creating unprompted impulse, a quality unique and fresh (one, of course, that’s highly prized across all artistic disciplines). For this reason I felt the show’s single flaw was the “one word” uttered by the dancer – perhaps as an idea it seemed to have its own special impact on the process of Sylvia’s emotional journey, but in situ I felt more “deflated” than galvanised by the “alien” sound of the dancer’s voice, and found myself wishing that a simple gesture had been used instead – I thought it a blip of a distraction rather than a revelation.

Having gotten that very idiosyncratic judgement off my chest (I’m certain this aspect of the play would have been “put to the sword” on many an occasion by all and sundry – and by dint of its presence has obviously survived sharper anatomisings than my relatively blunt critical instrument could ever furnish!) I’m bound to say that it mattered hardly a whit to my overall reaction to the play. I thought it all touched greatness in so many places, not the least in conveying the dichotomy of having a character “imagine” and bring into being another character who then appears to step outside the boundaries of the original conception, all by way of portraying an “opening up” of understandings and strengthening of feelings. I could readily relate to it all, and imagine that others would also have invariably been touched in some way by this exceedingly gentle in places but at times surprisingly powerful piece of theatre – my thanks and congratulations to all concerned!