By JAMUNA CHIARINI
On May 29, 1913, “The Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to music composed by Igor Stravinsky, premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for The Ballets Russes, the ballet captured a pagan celebration of spring: A young virgin, The Chosen One, sacrifices herself to the God of Spring by dancing herself to death. There were only eight performances of the ballet in Paris and London, and it was not performed again until its careful reconstruction by The Joffrey Ballet in 1987.
“”The Rite of Spring”” is notorious for the riots that supposedly occurred on its opening night in Paris. The night was a hot and humid, and tempers flared as the patrons at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées shared their opinions on the new production. Some reported that the theater broke out in pandemonium and the police were called; another report said a duel was scheduled because a lady was slighted; and another that the music was almost inaudible for the dancers onstage because of all the whistling, catcalling and shouting in the audience. Audiences up until this point were accustomed to a very different esthetic, what was seen and heard that night was considered by many to be ugly and noisy. Whatever the truth was, this was a turning point for both music and dance.
Henri Quittard, a music critic for Le Figaro, called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity”: “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure.” But the view of Jacques Riviere, a French intellectual and editor of The New French Review, has prevailed: “The great innovation of le Sacre du Printemps is the absence of all “trimmings.” Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Cold and harsh, if you will, but without any glaze to mar its inherent brilliance, without any artifices to rearrange or distort its contours. This is not a “work of art” with all the usual little contrivances. Nothing is blurred, nothing obscured by shadows; there is no veiling or poetic mellowing, no trace of esthetic effect. The work is presented whole and in its natural state; the parts are set before us completely raw, without anything that will aid in their digestion; everything is open, intact, clear, and coarse…”
The June 7 centennial celebration of “The Rite of Spring” at Lincoln Hall with Ken Selden conducting the PSU orchestra and choreography by Agnieszka Laska was momentous. A live orchestra and a live dance performance on the same stage is rare in Portland, and the concert was met with great enthusiasm by the audience, a sold-out house and a standing ovation.****
In his program notes, Selden wrote about his vision for celebrating the centennial:
“When I first dreamed about producing “”The Rite of Spring”” at PSU, I was not sure it would be possible to bring it to life in the way I imagined. I had no specific ideas of what a new choreography would look like, but I felt strongly that rather than a dance show, there could be an intense and shattering human experience that would be expressed physically through the music. When I met Agnieszka for the first time last summer, I was deeply moved by her musical and artistic knowledge, and her powerful creative energy. It was immediately clear to me that she would be the ideal choreographer for out project. It has been an inspiration to see the development of her choreography, and to see the dancers transform into her visionary image.”
In choreographing “The Rite of Spring,” Laska “felt absolutely compelled to quote from Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography, largely because of our common Polish, expatriate heritage.”
In the program, Laska wrote:
“This Rite of Spring is “both contemporary and primitive. It is set … in an imaginary corner of the world where an undeveloped people struggle desperately, day in and day out, just to find enough water to survive. This urgent, relentless quest dominates their tribal life, to the point that human sacrifice is an integral act of faith in their survival ritual-in some ways analogous to certain rituals in the modern, developed world. Some things never change; no matter how convenient, nothing is free.”
The lights dimmed and the curtains opened to reveal the PSU orchestra filling up what would have been the backstage area behind the stage at Lincoln Hall.
The music and the dancing began together as Sissy Dawson took center stage and danced an introspective, personal, sensual, quirky and eclectic solo. Turned-in feet (a quote from Nijinsky’s version), weight shifted to one side, head and wrists rolling with the spine following—the solo was absolutely gorgeously fluid movement on a gorgeous dancer.
Then the chorus entered en masse, a group of female dancers from upstage left that included two very young dancers who looked to be about 9 or 10 years old. I was at first taken aback by the young dancers presence among the older ones, but they grew on me as I began to see the community they helped create onstage and felt the importance of representing the generations in the story.
There were large group dances, small group break-offs, duets, solos, lots of big sweeping movements mixed with smaller details in the hands and feet, foot stomping, body slapping, limb tickling and frenzied passionate partnering with four male dancers, one of whom was a guest dancer borrowed from the Contemporary Dance Production Center of Mexico.
The costumes were diaphanous, opaque tunics, dresses and shorts in muted blues and grays, all very natural and ethereal looking, designed by Rebecca Price and dyed with natural plant and mineral derived colorants. The costumes flattered the movement and didn’t set the ballet in any particular time period, which was helpful in letting the imagination go where it wants instead of being directed somewhere specific.
Lauren Michelle Richmond, “The Chosen One,” began her transformation center stage as a cluster of attendants braided her long hair into multiple braids, tying the ends with cloth. They then painted her face white with red circles on her cheeks and tied a white strip of cloth around her forehead. The look was very reminiscent of Nijinsky’s own Chosen One.
Once transformed, she began her dance sacrifice, starting with dance steps that quoted Nijinsky’s original version. She begins by holding her right elbow cupped in her left hand, resting her head in the palm of her right hand. From there she begins a series of tucked knee jumps, jumping straight up in the air and reaching out desperately towards the audience, landing in a wide parallel lunge, leaning back and pleading up towards the heavens. Repeating these steps over and over, she dances furiously until the sky above her opened up and “rain” poured down upon her, drenching her as she died. Her friends, who have witnessed her rite and are bereaved, slowly leave the stage one by one, leaving only the two young girl laughing and playing in the newly found water as they ignore the dead woman lying close by. “Death so that life can continue,” Laska said in the post-show talk.
I enjoyed the mix of Nijinsky’s original choreography and Laska’s own movement, a genuine way to pay homage to the history and the choreography of “The Rite of Spring.” Laska’s own choreography was dramatic and emotional, balanced between narrative and abstract, deeply engaging and captivating. At times I lost track of the story and lost myself completely in the swirling movement and energy onstage. The dancing was heartfelt and attacked the choreography with commitment and passion.
Laska has stretched her self choreographically and has gone to new heights in this amazing body of work. The only drawback is that the performance was for one night only.
The Chosen One-Lauren Michelle Richmond
Opening Solo—Sissy Dawson
The Sage—Heidi Nelson
The Women—Karissa Dean, Allie Fahsholz
The Young Maidens—Kelsey Adams, Sissy Dawson, Sharon Lane, Nikki Leoplod, Amelia Unsicker.
The Young Men—Niqi Cavanaugh, Gentry Fielder, Jonathan Garza, Jorge Ronzon
The Girls—Natalie Cheechov, Sophie Marcus