The Setup: For the centennial of Vaslav Nijinky's monumental The Rite of Spring, Houston Ballet's Stanton Welch takes the tribal elements of the original dance of ritual sacrifice and magnifies them a hundred times over. The costuming and set design of the 1913 Paris debut is 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 Execution: 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 war 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.
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 was being used.
The heart begins to race as the men stomp out of the shadows in crouched warrior stances. 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. The Rite of Spring is the third of three works on the program. The first is the company premiere of Mark Morris' Pacific. The 1995 ballet explores the beauty of the human body as it is refined by classic technique. There is also much prettiness in the world premiere of Edwaard Liang's Murmuration. There is an otherworldly quality to the movement. It's weight, yet, light, almost as if the choreography is working in harmony with gravity rather than working against it.
The Verdict: 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.
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Performances of The Rite of Spring continue at 2 p.m. March 10 and 17 and 7:30 p.m. March 15 and 16 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information call 713-237-1439 or go to www.worthamcenter.org