Dance of the dolls

4th December 1998 at 00:00
The Mix: Petrushka
Channel 4. December 2, 9-9.30

A sheer delight to round off the year, enchanting to watch, applicable to many areas of the curriculum, but likely to be best enjoyed as an end-of-term Christmas treat. Alan Platt's film uses puppet animation to tell the story of the fairground showman and his three dolls, against the background of Stravinsky's music.

It is a tribute to the film-makers' skills that even the youngest children should be able to follow the story-within-a-story and be able to distinguish the "real people" puppets from the marionettes. There is even a scary moment at the end - and a haunting feel to the whole - but not frightening enough to do more than intrigue young children.

The central focus is the music, an approach extensively developed in the accompanying teacher's guide, with a number of suggested activities. Even confining oneself solely to this level of appreciation, there is a lot to enjoy in the way that the animators have integrated the score into the film, using sound and image to evoke the bustle of the fair, the dance of the marionettes or the loneliness of the doll Petrushka, the Harlequin figure of the story.

Clearly there are many routes here into history, geography, dance, drama (the commedia dell'arte for instance) and the visual arts, as well as a good starting-point for an exploration of Stravinsky's work.

It would be a shame though, if the pleasure of watching a charming film were to be soured by over-analysis or over-exploitation. Nothing illustrates better what may be one of the harder lessons for a teacher to learn: the need to trust one's pupils to appreciate certain things for themselves. This little film has such a powerful atmosphere, from the fireside in the inn where the framing story begins, to the ghostly last scene in the fairground that no one could fail to sense it. The questions may come much later and could involve some quite far-reaching explorations of the narrative, the link between fiction and reality and the animator's craft.

Most children will be interested to know how the puppets were made and animated, especially those of the old man and the two children at the inn which are not just jointed dolls on strings, like Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina.

This leads on naturally to the problems facing the dancers and producers in staging the ballet, which Alexandre Benois, the designer who worked with Diaghilev and Stravinsky on the original production, discusses in his Reminiscences.

But the makers of this film were not just confronted with the problems of animating the characters. They had to design appropriate sets, with a "Russian" feel and find a way of telling the story in the limited time available. There are touches of humour and moments of pathos (when Petrushka's "real" tears indicate that he is more than a senseless wooden doll). There is so much to explore, in fact, that is is hard to resist the temptation to analyse the film almost to death. The main thing is that the enjoyment should come first.

Teacher's guide: Pounds 3.95. Digital CD of complete ballet, performed by Czech Philharmonic and Prague Symphony Orchestra: Pounds 8.99. Video of the programme: Pounds 12.99. All from Channel 4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436444. www.channel4.comschools.

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