When Igor Stravinsky premiered his renowned orchestral concert The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in the spring of 1913 a riot broke out. Deemed too far-out by theatergoers and critics, the nature of Stravinsky's emphasis on meter and rhythm over melody as well as Vaslav Nijinsky's sexually charged choreography was ahead of its time. Luckily, it and Stravinsky persevered and what was once an unacceptable piece of art is now considered one of the composer's greatest and has been heralded for decades. Ten decades, in fact, is how long audiences have been enjoying this masterpiece of music and dance; this year The Rite of Spring celebrated its 100th anniversary.
To commemorate this monumental event, dance companies around the globe have been performing and reimagining the work with modern reinterpretations. This past weekend, Houston's FrenetiCore Dance Company boldly took on this challenge with its own choreographed concept of the famous work entitled The Rite of Summer. Right off the bat, credit is due for taking this on; it is no small feat. But FrenetiCore did not just change some of the choreography and call it a day. The entire production was a colossal undertaking consisting of video projections, a rescoring of the music and more costume changes than when Anne Hathaway hosted the Academy Awards.
In her program notes, FrenetiCore's Artistic Director Rebecca French describes her apprehension with taking this on; she goes on to say that eventually, "in the spirit of Stravinsky" she and composer Chris Becker said to themselves, "let's just have some fun." And that "fun" shines through this production. Although, if I were to find one word to describe The Rite of Summer, "fun" would be the last word on my list. Awe-striking, bold, impressive, inspiring, maybe even magical are more like how I felt about this piece. In a word, it was excellent.
I will fully admit that I have never seen The Rite of Spring performed live. I have seen many Youtube clips and am quite familiar with the composition itself, and while I don't feel confident comparing very specific stanzas of the original to FrenetiCore's interpretation, I am versed in the overall concept of the production. Regardless, if you know the piece or not, I don't feel that this is necessarily important to understand the breadth of this current production.
Like the original, French's choreography is split into specifically different movements each evoking a unique feeling. The original piece is an exploration of pagan rituals and customs, perhaps one of the reasons it was so poorly accepted, and French has kept this sentiment. A group of dancers in natural colors frolicked onto the stage for the opening number. While the dancers played nicely off each other there was an underlying hostility between groups that weaved its way throughout the production until the brilliant finale.
French's choreography is always strong but this production felt somehow more adult than shows I have seen in the past. It was as if the challenge of taking on this renowned work made her step up her game. The movements ranged from small and cutting to bold, wild even. She incorporated modern, jazz, interpretative and ballet, even cirque and gymnastic movements showed up. A beautiful ballet solo between two men (Ruben Trevino and Shohei Iwahama) in Pointe shoes slowed down the hyper-movements, allowing for French to showcase a more classical side. The final dance incorporated long tubes, which dancers used like uneven parallel bars, flipping and balancing themselves. It was fantastic to watch.
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For the most part, FrenetiCore's dancers are incredibly talented -- a few of the inferior dancers stand out because of the company's overall strength -- and they worked well in tandem. In a section obviously inspired by birds, the dancers seemed to fly through the air like the animals they were emulating.
Speaking of animals, between stanzas, visual projections, created by artist Varina Rush, broke up the blackness. The projected paintings set the mood for the next movement through color and design. Dark skewed faces set the stage for slower timed movements and vice versa. They made an excellent addition to the overall emotion of the piece. Additionally, the costumes, created by Ashley Horn, were a huge part of the show's appeal. I cannot recall how many costume changes the company may have gone through but not one outfit mirrored another and each one was more fantastical than the next.
The final piece to the puzzle was composer Chris Becker's reworking of the music. The original Stravinsky was apparent; it was just heightened by ambient sounds, electronic enhancements and pulsing rhythms. I hate to make assumptions about someone I couldn't possibly know and who has been dead for well over 40 years, but I feel like Stravinsky would have been proud for the bold reinvention of his work.
I cannot honestly remember the last time I left a performance, of any kind, filled with as much enthusiasm as I did after leaving the Frenetic Theater this past Saturday night. And I know that I was not the only one. Aside from the fact that the show was overly sold out, the loud buzz of gusto coming from the audience verified the feelings that I had. The only shame of this entire production is that it was only one weekend long. Hopefully, French will consider doing this annually so more people have the opportunity to marvel it in all its glory.