On May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-élysées in Paris, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered Le Sacre du printemps. Igor Stravinsky composed the music, Vaslav Nijinsky created the choreography, and Nicholas Roerich did the stage designs and costumes. Depending on your source, the ensuing riot was reportedly caused by: Stravinsky’s haunting atonal score; Nijinsky’s flat-footed, knock-kneed, floor-beating choreography depicting a pagan sacrificial rite; Roerich’s long, wide tunics and leggings clothing the dancers’ bodies; or some combination thereof. Undeniably, however, Le Sacre was a breakthrough ballet before its time.
On May 22, 1987, a new ballet commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev premiered at the Palais Garnier in Paris. Performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, the work depicted a rite of another sort: of seemingly insouciant dancers vying for supremacy (technical? sexual? cultural?) on a bare-walled stage. In their bright-green leotards and sheer-black tights, the women split, extended and skewed traditional ballet positions into a severe geometry of anatomical impossibility to a robustly clanging electronic score by Thom Willems. The work, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, by William Forsythe, initiated energetic discourse about “deconstructed” ballet and a new way of making choreography.
Last Tuesday, February 26, Northrop Dance brought springtime in Paris to the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis when Joffrey Ballet performed these two groundbreaking works, as well as a new ballet, Son of Chamber Symphony, by Houston Ballet’s artistic director Stanton Welch. More history lesson than insightful glimpse into the past, the show’s surprising standout was Welch’s piece.
In the three-part work, Welch gave traditional ballet vocabulary fresh infusions of choreographic detailing. In the first movement, the dancers were mechanical toys moving with precision through flickers of gesture and lines of movement. Tutus that resembled mushroom caps and moss-green leotards reinforced the work’s fairy-land feel. The second part, a duet, was a work of intertwined fluidity that moved gorgeously within an expanding and contracting circle of light. Part three, with its undulating torsos, was infused with delicacy and a sense of pleasure.
Having seen In the Middle numerous times, including once performed by Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet on the Northrop stage, my expectations were high. This a work that demands technique imbued with fearlessness, a presence that claims space, and an attitude of almost ferocious disdain. Instead, in this iteration the dancers seemed to luxuriate in the choreography, and I got bored—until the final duet. In the role originally made for Sylvie Guillem, the Joffrey’s Victoria Jaiani brought the work home, piercing space with her extensions before snapping them back into place, adding percussive emphasis to Willem’s score.
Le Sacre was meticulously reconstructed in the 1980s by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer for the Joffrey, after which the work toured. Stops included Northrop, where the work thrilled audiences eager to see what the fuss had been all about. In 2013, however, 100 years after its auspicious premiere, Le Sacre looked a bit tired, despite a vivacious performance of the score by the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.
Similarly, judging from conversations afterward, Le Sacre continues to mystify audiences. No longer are viewers outraged; they’re just left scratching their heads. No matter Nijinsky’s revolutionary daring, even when given historical and cultural context. Balletomanes still prefer dancers en pointe and with limbs visible. Perhaps the dancers themselves do, too.
Noted performance details:
The Joffrey Ballet, presented by Northrop Dance, performed the following on February 26 at the Orpheum Theatre:
Son of Chamber Symphony (2012) Choreography by Stanton Welch. Music by John Adams
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987). Choreography by William Forsythe. Music by Thom Willems
Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913). Choreography after Vaslav Nijinsky. Music by Igor Stravinsky
The U of M Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Russell Smith, performed live for Son of Chamber Symphony and The Rite of Spring.
Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities arts journalist and dance critic.
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