More rut than rite: Chouinard’s sexy ‘Spring’

Following Nijinsky, a long tradition of shock therapy for tradition gets another refreshing jolt

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

“At Julie Le Gallienne’s hat shop in Paris, in the spring of 1912, all the ladies could talk about as they drank their tea was Nijinsky’s scandalous scarf dance.” Or so my grandmother, who was there,  wrote in her unpublished memoir of her years as an American expatriate artist in pre-World War One Paris.  Le Gallienne, who was a superb milliner, is better-known as the mother of actress, director and writer Eva Le Gallienne.

My Hoosier grandmother was, of course, referring to Nijinksy’s orgasmic movement in the title role of his own “Prélude  à l’aprés midi d’un Faune,” which premiered in the Théȃtre de Chȃtelet, on May 29th in 1912.  Marie Chouinard’s solo version of this piece, minus the scarf, not to mention the original costume, had its Portland premiere on the stage of Lincoln Hall on Thursday night, and I very much doubt anyone was particularly shocked, although I did  hear a couple of nervous giggles when Carol Prieur (note the gender) as the Faun deployed a long, curved phallus from her crotch.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard

Compagnie Marie Chouinard

Chouinard is no more attempting to replicate the Nijinsky ballet than was Jerome Robbins, whose 1953 take on the work is in the repertoire of Oregon Ballet Theatre. The extended pas de deux was memorably performed several years ago by, among others, former company members Gavin Larsen and Artur Sultanov. But like Robbins, Chouinard pays homage to the music and Nijinsky’s choreography with details that make you think of the original, which has been frequently reconstructed over the last century, starting in 1922, when Nijinska, who was in it, restaged her brother’s work.

Those details include a pawing, prancing walk, one foot looking remarkably like a hoof; Prieur moving in profile, like a figure on one of the pieces of Greek pottery recently seen at the Portland Art Museum, along a horizontal path from stage right to stage left.  There is also a pretty faithful replication of the arching orgasm that was the “scarf” dance climax of the original.

How do I know this?  Minh Tran, who was in the audience Thursday night, danced an extraordinary Faun when he was a graduate student at the University of Washington, staged from Labanotation and produced with reconstructions of Bakst’s set and costumes.  Tran succeeded in liberating himself from the too reverential staging — which, like an academic copy of a great painting, can render art lifeless – delivering  a sinuously feral interpretation of the role, the memory of which still knocks my socks off.

So did Chouinard’s “Rite of Spring” nearly twenty years ago, when I saw it performed at the Hult Center in Eugene – minus, I’m pretty sure, the twelve minutes of “extra” choreography and “Signatures sonores” (which sounded to me like crickets, and to others like the scratching of a pen) that now begins the piece.  I thought this preamble superfluous.  If the idea was to suggest the quickening of nature that occurs in early spring, Stravinsky’s gorgeous bassoon solo sounding the first few notes of his revolutionary score accomplishes the same thing in far less time and infinitely more beautifully.

Unless, god help you, you’ve been sequestered in Congressional committee hearings for the past month, you know that this May marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of “Rite of Spring,”  also in Paris, but this time at the Théȃtre des Champs-Elysees, where many members of the audience were so upset by Stravinsky’s score (and a few of them by Nijinsky’s flexed-footed, earth-bound, anti-balletic choreography) that fistfights broke out, they tore out some of the seats, and Diaghilev was so thrilled by the reception that he instructed the performers to do it again, right now, right then.

Since then, there have been many, many versions of this ballet created by virtually every choreographer you’ve ever heard of (although not Balanchine, who no doubt loathed the violence of the libretto, sacrificial maiden and all), including Maurice Béjart, Martha Graham (who danced in Massine’s version in the 1930s and created her own in the Eighties, identifying the Chosen One, or sacrificial maiden as an artist), Pina Bausch, Shen Wei (whose version, thanks to White Bird, we saw here in Portland some years ago); and closer to home, Toni Pimble, for the Eugene Ballet, and Christopher Stowell, whose choreography for the women required them to dance on point, last seen in 2011.

Chouinard’s erotically charged version is more rut than rite, a series of mating dances exemplified by a strutting duet with the two dancers thrusting their heads at each other like a couple of birds; a male duet that looks like a couple of rams trying to knock each other out of the ball park, observed by a couple of the female dancers from the side of the stage; a spectacular solo, the dancer adorned with many curved prongs, a mystically sexy creature who also reminded me of photographs of a nearly nude Josephine Baker doing her Folies Bergère  “banana” – talk about shocking!

There is in fact nothing shocking about Chouinard’s take on “Rite of Spring,” although there is much that is elegant and humorous: save the gratuitous beginning, it is always compelling and frequently riveting. Her movement is physically demanding — torsos are torqued, knees turned in, feet flexed. Timing, control, and occasional effortlessness (a sudden pirouette in the middle of a solo, for example) are also hallmarks of her style, and on Thursday night the dancers, all of them, performed with the kind of commitment to the work that can, and did, hold the audience in thrall.

The recorded music was lovely, although it would be nice to know what recordings of “Faun” and “Rite” were used, and Chouinard’s lighting design for “Rite” is as skillful as her choreography.  Diaghilev was a great showman (who incidentally frequently designed the lights for the work he produced) and Chouinard’s versions of these seminal works pay honor to that tradition.  There’s no reason after all why art can’t be entertaining, or, if it comes to that, entertainment be art.  Merci bien, Madame Chouinard!

NOTES:

Final performance is tonight (Saturday, Feb. 2) at Lincoln Performance Hall. Ticket information here.

Grant Butler’s review for The Oregonian is here.

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