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By now, Carolina Performing Arts’ yearlong celebration of “The Rite of Spring at 100” has resounded throughout the entire world as a brilliant coup of exceptional and creative programming that will most likely not be repeated during our lifetimes. Throughout the year there have been dozens of widely varying presentations and interpretations of this revolutionary Stravinsky composition and its 1913 Paris premiere by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Company. However, this, and the previous evening’s performance was probably the pinnacle of this festival: a reconstruction of the choreography, costumes and stage design of the ballet as presented on May 29, 1913. While the only thing missing was a live orchestral performance of the music, that was easily forgiven especially with Memorial Hall’s excellent sound system.
The Joffrey Ballet was founded in Chicago in 1956 and since that time has risen to become one of the great dance companies of the world. They present a diverse repertoire of traditional classic ballet, reconstructions of historic works and contemporary dance. This is no small point especially when you consider the recent acid attack on the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, in part because of artistic freedom and the battling contingents of traditional ballet vs. modern dance.
Although for decades it was accepted as fact that it was Stravinsky’s music that caused a riot at the Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring, that has now been debunked and it is accepted that it was the choreography and costumes that made Frenchmen go wild. Millicent Hodson has reconstructed Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography, Kenneth Archer reconstructed the costumes of Nicholas Roerich, and we experienced as close as possible what it was like at that first performance. The curtain did not rise immediately. We were left to soak in the remarkable bassoon solo and woodwinds opening without any visual competition. The curtain rose at the moment of those famous primitive, pounding chords as the stage became filled with dozens of dancers in costumes depicting ancient peoples and their rites. I couldn’t help thinking that they looked a bit like Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” until the dancers engaged in movements that may be shocking even to some this day.
Since this was a European/Russian take on primitive dances, ceremonies and dress — and it most closely resembles at least our conceptions of Native Americans — it is conceivable that offense may be taken. But this was a brilliantly executed journey into a truly collaborative artistic gesture that was done with respect and wonder at where and what we once were.
Working backwards in the program, while the Rite was certainly the draw for the sold out audience, it did not present the most technical difficulties for the dancers. The middle work was In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev in 1987 for the Paris Ballet, set to an electronic score of the Dutch composer Thom Willems. This is a perfect example of the Joffrey’s melding of modern dance and classic ballet, in a fiercely athletic and virtuosic display of strength, grace and control. Choreographed by William Forsythe, this is an example of the miscalculation that if some is good, more is better; that goes for the music and dance. A pulsating, slashing unrelenting blitz of electronic effects is interesting for about ten minutes but then grates and ultimately annoys. The sheer physical prowess of all the participants is impressive and seductive, and that lasts longer than the music by itself would, but the gnawing repetitiveness eventually diminishes a work which would have had much more impact practicing “less is sometimes more.”
The opening work was quite spectacular on every level, and for me was the highlight of the evening. The Age of Innocence, like the book and movie bearing that name, is inspired by the novels of Jane Austen. Choreographed by Edwaard Liang to a stunning score by Phillip Glass followed by Thomas Newman, this is a highly romantic work that mesmerized the entire audience. This is a five-movement creation that begins with a beautifully lit opener that features the entire cast. The two pas de deux movements are everything that dance should be: expressive, a celebration of what the human body can do, and the symbiosis of movement and music.