The book of ballets done once or twice and then forgotten is a lengthy one. Le Sacre du Printemps, now one hundred years old, was almost one of them. As a reconstructed ballet it is a kind of living anachronism, and not so different in that regard when compared to any of the famous nineteenth century story ballets. We have Millicent Hodson, Kenneth Archer and the adventuresome Robert Joffrey to thank for taking on the painstaking task of breathing life into it again and, in doing so, showing us what one vision of modernism in music and dance looked like near the turn of the twentieth century. It is a conundrum that while the stylized movement and theatrical expression of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring now look old fashioned to our eyes, the music does not sound that way. Orchestras have had a continuous history of playing “The Rite of Spring” since it was first performed in 1913 but choreographers—Horton, Béjart, MacMillan, Bausch and others—have moved on with their own versions. Those efforts pay homage to Nijinsky’s primitive storytelling, albeit in more abstract settings, but they also have exploited the extraordinary music in different ways. In the end, it proved to be music too tempting to leave alone.
What should today’s audiences make of the 1913 The Rite of Spring? Is it more than an historical dance relic of the Ballets Russes? Nijinsky was obsessed with inner expression and artistic modernism. Even though Stravinsky co-authored the original scenario with the designer, Nicholas Roerich, he thought of the music as “architectonic, not anecdotal”. Not wanting to repeat himself, he had begun to turn away from the narrative music of Petrushka and Firebird. He saw Rite of Spring as a kind of pure, abstract music. We find ourselves wrapped up in its exhausting and brutal pagan story. The hierarchy of the tribe is communicated by the groupings of identically costumed dancers—the elders, maidens in red, the young people, the women in blue, etc. The instrumental groupings and clustering parallel harmonies give us a musical representation of that organization. In the final scene, the Chosen One dances herself to death as part of the inevitable ritual. While the ritual may be limited to the picture before us it can also bring to mind modern equivalencies i.ie. the circling of the wagons around Pvt Bradley Manning or the spate of killings in the seventies in which onlookers declined to intervene. The profound imagination and earth bound sensitivities of the original are not so much shocking as they are graphic. The vibrancy and sheer visceral impact of the ballet feels undimmed.
The work was vividly danced on Friday with a thronging presence and pounding, rhythmic clarity. The role of The Chosen One was danced with abandon by Erica Lynette Edwards. Everything about this production felt invested with the committed urgency of real dance. The music Friday evening was also magnificent. William May’s iterations of the opening solo were beautiful and expressive. Also brilliant was David Washburn, whose blistering trumpet playing stood out even from the depths of the pit. Local musicians were led by Joffrey Music Director, Scott Speck.
Also on Friday’s program were two newish works by Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon. It was the second movement of Wheeldon’s After the Rain, a pas de deux set to Arvo Pärt’s contemplative Spiegel im Spiegel that provided the only other counter weight on Friday’s program. Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani stunned the audience with their emotional connection, virtuosic partnering, and an uncanny ability to capture the slow motion sequences of Pärt’s spare and serene music. After the Rain is an off-balance work that finishes better than it begins. Some of the music for the first section, Ludus (from Tabula Rasa, also Pärt) sounded ragged on Friday. But Wheeldon and the cast of six dancers captured a connection to the music that was mostly missing in Welch’s large ensemble piece, Son of Chamber Symphony. That clever title copies John Adam’s title for his music which is a fleet, three movement work for piano, mixed strings and winds, and percussion. Welch’s work is based mostly on neoclassical ballet vocabulary. It offers a busy arrangement of entrances, and exits, and a lengthy pas de deux to the central slow movement. But the music and dancing mostly seem to inhabit the same space without any clear or urgent connection. The cool, geometric lighting configurations by Jack Mehler and jutting, modern tutus by Travis Halsey gave the piece a modern day design appeal. And even though the choreography felt more artificial than purposeful, beautiful dancing and sure partnering prevailed from the sixteen member cast.
The Joffrey performs on the Dance at the Music Center series through Sunday, February 3rd. They continue to be a vibrant company with broad reach. And while the focus was justifiably on this company’s full blooded production, the music represented something of a high water mark. In part, we can thank Stravinsky for that, too.
(The reconstruction of The Rite of Spring was carried out under the direction of Robert Joffrey and premiered in 1987. The Joffrey Ballet regularly danced that ballet and a number of other reconstructed or revived works such as Parade, Afternonn of a Faune, Les Noces, and The Green Table in Los Angeles during the late 80’s. You can watch The Joffrey Ballet’s filmed version of Rite of Spring on Dance Channel TV Video:Ashley Wheater, the current Artistic Director of the Joffrey Ballet, was in the cast.)