by JEFF WINSLOW
History is coming to Astoria on Saturday. Not through books covered in dust, or even keyboards covered in fingerprints, but with crazy pulse-pounding music and dance! It’ll be a riot!
There was a riot, a century and a month ago to the day, the most famous riot in the history of classical music, when Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring” premiered in Paris in 1913. Admittedly there isn’t a lot of competition in that specialized category, but it was a doozy. No one died and nothing was burned down, but fists flew, clothes were ripped, and the screaming and shouting nearly drowned out the music. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company delivered on a triple threat of outrageous dance, costumes and music, and the scandalous result lived up to his wildest dreams.
These days of course, we have seen much more shocking things, and Astorians are unlikely to riot when the curtain goes up at 7:30 pm June 29 at the Liberty Theater and the exuberant cacophony of a Russian spring thaw begins to spread over them. However, two things that they will experience in this production of “The Rite” will evoke its tumultuous history. While they won’t hear Stravinsky’s colorful orchestration, decried at the time as violent and bizarre, the infamous dissonances are if anything sharper when heard in the piano four-hand version, which will be performed by top Portland pianists (and “Rite” veterans) Jeffrey Payne and Susan Smith of the new music ensembles FearNoMusic and Third Angle, respectively.
And Portland choreographer Agnieszka Laska, who like Diaghilev has never been afraid of controversy, has leapt to a new stage in her artistic development, creating a show which inventively combines distinctive elements of her choreographic repertoire with moves inspired by classic ballet and the landmark 1987 Joffrey Ballet “Rite” reconstruction (Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography has been largely lost). And then, just when you think you’ve seen it all, she tops it off with an unflinching gaze at the work’s barbaric denouement.
I was one of the fortunate who got into the sold-out Portland State University performance of this show on June 7th. It started innocently enough, with a group of girlfriends doing girlfriend things, while in the orchestra, winter’s ice melted away underneath. There is no hint that one of them will have danced to her death before an hour has passed.
Suddenly the celebration of spring erupted, and the stage filled with action. Men vaulted over women who were rolling ecstatically across the stage. In the “Game of Abduction,” a classic ballet move in which a ballerina leaps onto her male partner’s shoulder was adapted to a new, dangerous purpose. Then a stroke of lighting genius made it seem women were sweating blood, with deep red splotches skittering helter skelter across their brilliant white costumes. Groups formed, broke, and re-formed in every conceivable geometry. And everything that happened was clearly triggered by the extraordinary sounds coming from the orchestra. Sensitivity to the music, no matter how fractious, is a hallmark of the Laska style and this production is no exception.
In the second half, music and dance return to the quiet, almost aimless quality of the opening, but this time there is no innocence, only sinister, mysterious purpose. Suddenly the sacrificial victim is chosen, and the narrative coalesces around her coming doom. The other dancers change her costume. They slowly and methodically imprison her hair in multiple braids. At one point she tries to break loose and shake them out, but the others aren’t having any of that. Then her terrifying dance begins. Geometries shift and shift again, but now they all orbit with ever-increasing intensity around the chosen victim as each new shift in the music pumps adrenaline levels higher. She falters, and one of the other women steps out to support her. But it’s only to prepare her and push her into her final agonizing flings. Will the gods reward her sacrifice? I nearly jumped out of my seat at the answer.
This may be the end of the music, but in Laska’s vision it is not the end of the story. A common ending ploy is to black out or drop curtain suddenly at the moment the chosen victim falls. It’s dramatic, and esthetically satisfying on a certain level, but it also sanitizes the narrative. A young woman, full of life a few moments before, is lying dead. Since when is it an appropriate reaction to such an outrage to erupt in applause and head for a restroom or a latte? We are held, captivated, as the rest of the company slowly withdraws, in shock at what they have created. The spell is broken only when little children, who don’t really understand such things, come out and play amid the delights the gods have bestowed, ignoring the lifeless body they surround.
Which brings me back to this coming Saturday night. Laska’s conclusion is an eerie bow to another, much less ambiguous tragedy begun the year after the “Rite” premiered, which also ends in the antics of children: “Wozzeck” by the composer Alban Berg. Festival regulars will remember the captivating live performance of this 1925 opera in Astoria only a few years ago. Stravinsky’s voice is very different than Berg’s, but in both we hear the ferment of artistic exploration and discovery that gripped Europe only a century ago. It was a heady time to be alive, and for an hour or so Saturday night, that same excitement is available again.
Not only that, you can unwind afterwards to a live performance of Aaron Copland’s luminous music for Martha Graham’s 1944 ballet, “Appalachian Spring,” complete with film of the dance. It’s a much gentler, if no less exciting conception of the season of renewal. Even if you live in Portland or other distant places, it’s well worth the trip.
After the Astoria performance, ALD plans to tour the production around the state throughout the Rite’s centenary year, with the next stop at Lincoln City Cultural Center (September 14) and more bookings in the works.
Portland composer Jeff Winslow is a frequent contributor to ArtsWatch.
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