Reimagining The Rite of Spring

Nozomi Iijima and Joseph Walsh in The Rite of Spring.
Amitava Sarkar

Even if a fledgling dancer or a budding dance enthusiast has never seen a production of The Rite of Spring, he or she has heard the Igor Stravinsky music and the fabled account of its 1913 premier. Choreographed by the young wunderkind Vaslav Nijinsky for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the ballet disposed of the classical lines of dance in favor of severe placements of the hands and feet. The dancers hated the choreography, but not as much as its detractors at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. They booed so loudly that the dancers could not hear the music from the orchestra and Nijinsky had to yell out the counts from the wings.

Aside from Nijinksy's unorthodox movement and Stravinsky's unmelodic score, the content was also behind the sharp reaction. Hardly a fairy tale, Spring tells the story of the Chosen One, a virgin who has been selected by her people for human sacrifice. For the centennial of this monumental ballet, Stanton Welch takes the tribal elements of Nijinsky's original and magnifies them a hundred times over. The costuming and set design of the 1913 Paris debut are reminiscent of Eastern European folk garb, positing it in a somewhat familiar Western context. Welch, however, has drawn ­inspiration from his native Australia for his backdrop.

The art of indigenous Australian Rosella Namok is used to set the piece in a time and place before the presence of the West. The costumes and make-up design are not strictly native Australian; there are hints of African and Native American tribal culture in the ornate hair and body paint. The otherness of the world of Welch's Spring serves to heighten the contrived naturalism of Nijinksy's choreography, for humans do not move with clenched fists and stomping feet any more than they do in a turned out position stepping toe to heel.


The Rite of Spring

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. on March 15 and 16 and 2 p.m. on March 17 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas.

Welch's choreography does not subvert the original, but expands on its provocative images. The imposing women of whatever tribe Welch is imagining enter the stage traveling in the sagittal plane. They move in lines in the foreground and background, creating a two-dimensional impression out of three-dimensional bodies. For much of the first half, there is a complete absence of diagonals. The shapes that are created, such as that of a six-limbed being when the dancers are stacked behind one another, hit the audience face-on, which creates an intensity that might not have been felt if traditional staging were being used.

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The heart begins to race as the men stomp out of the shadows in crouched warrior stances. Dozens of dancers occupy the stage, especially when the Chosen One manifests herself. On opening night, she was played with fierce feminine power by the petite Nozomi Iijima. Once she has made herself known, and the man who will be her destiny is identified, the formations take a mostly circular shape, which is also in keeping with native dance traditions. The energy that is generated by the flurry of crossing, uninhibited leaps and endless entrances and exits is spellbinding. Spring creates a trance, one that is difficult to break out of.

There does not appear to be a literal sacrifice in Welch's interpretation. She is given in marriage, or bondage, to a warrior chieftain. The dance ends with Iijima in the arms of the commanding Joseph Walsh — who shines just as brilliantly as he does in classical and contemporary roles — the ensemble facing with fixed glares. Some transaction of power has just occurred, and then the lights go out. There may be no sacrifice, but the shock of organized, unquestioned ritual is still there.

The Rite of Spring is the third of three works on the program. The first is the company premiere of Mark Morris's Pacific. The 1995 ballet explores the beauty of the human body as it is refined by classic technique. Danced by three men in blue skirts, four women in green and a couple in pink, the piece is filled with the gorgeous shapes that can only be created by the limbs of a professional dancer.

There is also much prettiness in the world premiere of Edwaard Liang's Murmuration. There's an otherworldly quality to the movement. It's weighty yet light, almost as if the choreography is working in harmony with gravity rather than against it. In the first movement, dancers move like fairies to Ezio Bosso's Violin Concerto No. 1. Downstage lights magnify their sprite-like passes so that giant shadows on the backdrop intermingle with the flesh-and-blood bodies onstage.

The dance takes its cue from the natural world; murmuration is the word for the intricate patterning created by starling birds during their flight. There are several stunning moments when the ensemble enters the stage en masse, like a flock, and then exits with sweeping finesse. Ballet companies do not normally move in canons, but they do here to exhilarating effect. There is an order here that is suggestive of a community of some sort, especially when Karina Gonzalez and Christopher Coomer begin to dance together. There is a beautiful image of contact, their heads cradled next to each other in the nook of a shoulder. The figures around them are very much present, observing in benevolent reverence. In this respect, Liang's work makes an interesting juxtaposition with Welch's Spring. The former might be considered an exploration of ritualism when imbued with a sense of the spiritual; the latter is a representation of ritualism for its own sake.

This program is essential viewing, even outside of the main attraction. Audiences will surely remember the impressions of beauty in both Pacific and Murmuration, but it's the shocking images of Welch's reimagining of Spring that will last a lifetime. His red-blooded choreography is so carnal, so grounded in the human impulse of ritual, it's almost obscene.

And so the legacy of Nijinsky's disruption of dance continues.

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