Unusual scenes at the New York Philharmonic this past weekend: a ballerina flouncing across the stage; conductor Alan Gilbert lugging a life-size puppet down the aisle amid rows of laughing, bewildered audience members; black-and-white video projections of the orchestra musicians sipping tea. For this year’s season finale, A Dancer’s Dream, Mr Gilbert and director/designer Doug Fitch brought two Stravinsky works to life in an imaginative, indulgent series of concerts.

William da Sliva performs circus acts during Petrushka © Chris Lee
William da Sliva performs circus acts during Petrushka
© Chris Lee

So much fun has not been had in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall since Mr Gilbert and Mr Fitch’s last collaborations: Le Grand Macabre in 2010 and The Cunning Little Vixen in 2011. All three productions, created by the Brooklyn-based theater company Giants Are Small (founded by Mr Fitch and Edouard Getaz), incorporated outlandish images and musicians fulfilling energetic roles on top of their skilful interpretation of these 20th-century works. This year’s whimsical atmosphere featured lighting by Clifton Taylor, vibrant costumes and make-up by Irina Kruzhilina and Margie Durand, a bit of audience participation, and artificial snowflakes tumbling from the ceiling and on the giant screen behind the musicians.

The serene sounds of Le baiser de la fée (“The Fairy’s Kiss”) were paired with dancers flitting and twirling in front of the orchestra and among the video artists crouching and scurrying across the stage. Principal dancer Sara Mearns was a vision as she traversed the crowded stage, pirouetting through the worlds of reality and fantasy with the other dancers. Stravinsky’s ballet, composed in 1928 as an homage to Tchaikovsky, is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Ice-Maiden. The bizarre tale was told here through Karole Armitage’s concise choreography and the clear playing of the Philharmonic. The scenes captured by the videographers and portrayed on the projection – church bells, miniature houses, cows fighting – provided additional imagery. The concurrence of these different forms of wordless narration created an intriguing delight that was occasionally overwhelming and always enjoyable. I was smiling in wonder and amusement until the final chords cascaded down like snow.

The entr’acte arrived in the form of selections from underrated French composer Louis Durey’s Neige. The piano piece, interpreted this weekend by Eric Huebner and Steve Beck, depicts snow with swirls of melody and harmony. Durey, initially influenced by Debussy and then a devout follower of Satie, was a member of Les Six, a collection of composers who idolized Satie but whose music and ideologies have little in common. It was nice to hear the rarely performed composer while the orchestra, puppeteers, and other cast members prepared for the next piece. During the interlude, the musicians returned to their seats wearing brightly colored shawls and fur hats, and Ms Mearns was adorned with her third costume of the evening (all three were pale pink).

Petrushka, another Stravinsky ballet (composed seventeen years before Le baiser de la fée), was just as jam-packed with sounds and scenes that blurred the line between reality and wonderland. The black-and-white video projections and the colorful images on the stage might have left the instrumentalists completely unnoticed if they hadn’t been featured on the videos themselves. At various points throughout the piece, we saw the musicians drinking tea, stomping their feet, laughing and grimacing. The puppets and miniatures, designed by Doug Fitch, Matt Acheson, and Chris Fitch, pranced across the stage and the screen. Little sleighs toppled down little ramps and Ferris wheels and carousels spun delicately. At one point, a set of Russian dolls danced across the screen. At first I hungrily tried to drink in every detail with my eyes, but at a certain point I settled back and just enjoyed the mayhem.

Puppeteers Matt Acheson and Amar Ramasar led the puppets through the four scenes of the ballet: first, the winter scene of the Shrovetide Fair, where the audience is introduced to the puppets Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor. From there Petrushka comes to life and mourns his inability to woo the Ballerina, who prefers the Moor. In the final scene, Petrushka dies in the snow after being slain by the Moor. At this point, Mr Gilbert dragged the “lifeless” puppet off the stage and into the rows of enthralled spectators, only to turn and see an image of Petrushka pointing and laughing on the screen. The moments leading up to this clever finale were just as surreal: a violist miraculously juggling colorful scarves, musicians up and dancing, the entrance of a bear prompting the audience’s blood-curdling shriek (which we had rehearsed with Mr Gilbert before the start of the concert).

The orchestra plays this well nearly every week. But last weekend’s spectacle emphasized the many hats – literally and figuratively – they are capable of wearing. For every name I’ve listed here, there were five others I should have mentioned; for every moment I’ve described, there were more that could only have been so expertly delivered by a passionate and capable group of individuals. Let’s hope that shenanigans like these remind audiences how thrilling and talented the Philharmonic truly is.