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Dance Review Print

The Rite of Spring: Compagnie Heddy Maalem at UNC-Chapel Hill

October 25, 2008 - Chapel Hill, NC:

Dance fans and lovers of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps who had been eagerly awaiting the appearance of French Compagnie Heddy Maalem in UNC-CH's Memorial Hall as part of Carolina Performing Arts' World Stage series were not disappointed. The performance was danced to the ferocious 1969 recording by Pierre Boulez and the Cleveland Orchestra, and the choreography was worthy of the sound.

In recent years we have seen several deeply unsatisfactory versions of The Rite of Spring, by various choreographers. Shen Wei's is best of them, but even his Spring appears to be that of a post-nuclear world with all color drained away — and if any babies are getting made there, it must be in test-tubes. Emmanuel Gat retained the color, but couldn't connect music and dance. Nicholas Leichter, in a misguided attempt at political relevance, designed his Rite as a peroration about the dignity of the worker.

But French-Algerian choreographer Heddy Maalem, while making some fascinating additions, got back to the primal physicality of the music — and to its cycling assertion of the interlocking whirl of death and life. He has also returned rich color to the stage. The fourteen dancers form a rainbow of glowing browns, from pale golden tones, to the dark saturation of raw umber and burnt sienna. The dancers are minimally dressed in flowery colors that echo the flowers in projected video imagery that fills the back wall during an aural prologue of rain, wind, insects and other natural sounds.

After this prologue, during which two dancers, dark in silhouette against the video backdrop, moved with the slow certainly of stems pushing through earth, the score and the troupe burst upon the eye with a dazzle of motion. Six men and six women consider each other, combining and rearranging with the help of two male priest-like characters, distinguished by their long shorts and longer dreadlocks. The chosen pair is led away to mate, and the ensuing action was both the most erotic and the most frighteningly violent I have witnessed on stage.

The musical score is then paused, and another aural interlude inserted, this time of driving mechanical and industrial sounds, backed by imagery from a large African city. When Stravinsky's music resumes, it seems a natural outgrowth of the sound of the pile-driving man of the backdrop, just as he seemed to naturally follow the pounding of the chosen woman in the first act. The dance's second act shows spring and fertility ascendant; the fecund woman in pink is borne aloft like a queen, and joyous, lascivious circlings fill the stage before the whole troupe vanishes with the last crescendo.

But there was more: A single male returns, again dark in silhouette against the video backdrop. We see a work horse…we hear the clipclopping rhythm of his movement. The man dances in a crouch, making incantatory motions beyond our ken. Perhaps he is the winter that will call into being another spring.

One should feel both exhilarated and exhausted after listening to Le Sacre du Printemps. Experiencing it together with this dance was completely thrilling and nearly overwhelming. Stumbling out of the theater, I saw several people looking at their watches in disbelief. Checking my own, I saw we had lived through this season of passion in just one hour.