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Meeting Karpovsky is a collaboratively created play designed as a vehicle for the talents of one of NZ's best theatre actresses, Helen Moulder, and the emminence grise of the Royal NZ Ballet, Sir Jon Trimmer who's been the principal dancer there for 40+ years and, unsurprisingly, is now a little past his prime, and not up to lead roles. It won the Best New Play award in New Zealand in 2002, and Moulder won the award for best actress for her performance in it the following year.

The story concerns a somewhat fey late middle-aged woman, Sylvia, who loves the ballet - as a spectator. We find her in a room full of boxes putting up a poster. There are already three others on the wall, and as she places the latest, it becomes clear, she's slightly dotty and very lonely, as she looks at the posters them she talks to them, interspersing her general speech with invented limericks. The posters all feature one dancer - Karpovsky - and symbolise elements of the story that is about to unfold. They are:

Herr Drosselmeyer - the magician from The Nutcracker
Widow Simone - the mother from La Fille Mal Gardee
Albrecht and Giselle - obviously from Giselle

The new poster is Petrushka - the puppet who learns how to feel.

As Sylvia flits about, she talks about how Karpovsky has performed, and opens boxes, pulling out things from within them and describing their history, their symbolism - a fan, the willow pattern ... We learn she's divorced, that her husband, Charles was a dealer in antique china, and that she smashed a lot of it when he left her for another woman, deceiving her, as Albrecht deceived Giselle. We discover, too, that the contents of the boxes belong to her daughter, Anna, who is working as a volunteer in China, and has eschewed worldly possessions - she's asked Sylvia to give her stuff away. Sylvia lifts a sealed envelope, in passing, looks at it and puts it down, hastily.

As she does so, a figure appears from the shadows, a man with a stick - Karpovsky himself. We know he can't be entirely real, but whether he's a figment of her imagination or some kind of ghost or spirit is never clear.

He appears in the room, scaring her at first then sending her into a tizzy of busy speech. Silently (he only speaks one word in the entire play) he indicates that she should dance with him. She protests that she can't, but he teaches her a few rudimentary steps which she performs clumsily. She's left dizzy and laughing and he disappears.

He appears over a series of visits teaching Sylvia more dance steps and guiding the unfolding of the plot as he guides her dancing. He's the Herr Drosselmeyer figure, part father, part magician, and the driving force behind her spiritual journey towards facing whatever is contained in that sealed envelope. As she travels it, uncovering more and more of the items hidden inside the boxes, we learn that she relates Widow Simone's relationship with her daughter, Lise, to her own with her daughter Anna. Like the widow, she wants her daughter to be something she isn't, and has been forced to accept that she cannot control Anna's path - but she can't let go and feels she's failed to look after her properly.

Finally, we see her as Petrushka - a puppet controled by, and railling at, a cold and cruel creator, as her brittle mask breaks down and we see her forced to confront the pain that's necessitated Karpovsky's appearance.

Both performances are excellent - Moulder's was perhaps a little too histrionic for the small theatre I saw it in, but would have been perfect in a larger venue and Trimmer was just brilliant. Every movement was precise, graceful, elegant, and he has incredible presence. The ballet references are seamless and made understandable whether or not you are familiar with the dance, and the music is familiar and wonderful.

I really, really enjoyed this, in case you didn't guess.

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