A highlight of summer: 'The Rite of Spring' with Joffrey Ballet, Cleveland Orchestra (review)

August 19, 2013
Zachary Lewis

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“The Rite of Spring” will never sound the same again. Not after last weekend.

To those who witnessed the work presented by Joffrey Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, Stravinsky’s masterpiece will no longer be just a groundbreaking score. It also will be the work that changed dance, forever.

Having seen the “Rite” as originally conceived, in three dimensions, and so intensely performed, one understands better than ever why it sparked a riot and why it still jolts people a century after its premiere.

It was the ritual element that rattled. Conductor Tito Muñoz drew forth from an invigorated orchestra all the music’s magnificence and brutality, but that's nothing compared to actually seeing a horde sentence and dance someone to death. So visceral, in fact, was the experience Saturday, so cruel the act depicted, one almost felt depraved taking enjoyment in it.

Not that everything was so disturbing. On the contrary, the production re-imagined by Joffrey in 1987 was a nonstop delight, a thrill on all fronts from choreography to visuals.

Start with dance, the likely culprit of the revolt by the Parisians of 1913. A ballet in name only, the powerful choreography reconstructed by Millicent Hodson was heavy and unrefined, full of such primal acts as stomping, convulsing, leaping and falling. Instead of soloists tracing shapes, dancers mostly performed in groups, in pounding unison.

One individual stood out from the crowd. As the Chosen One Saturday, dancer Joanna Wozniak was gripping, vacillating between states of catatonia and caged terror. Just as  she and other candidates for sacrifice trudged in circles, zombie-like, so were spectators mesmerized.

Likewise entrancing were the visual elements. Colorful robes, animal furs and painted faces readily evoked an ancient, tribal world, while the lighting by Jack Mehler made sun- and moonlight vital characters. A ring of light on the floor, the mystic circle as envisioned by Joffrey called to mind a witch’s cauldron, one containing the most potent mixture Blossom has hosted in quite some time.

And “Rite” was just half the program. Preceding the main attraction were three shorter works surveying the Joffrey of today and contributing to a thorough, well-rounded evening.

“Interplay,” by Jerome Robbins, kicked off the night in high spirits. Wearing bright, solid colors, four couples behaved like teenagers on break, strutting, pairing off and simply having fun. Christine Rocas and Alberto Velazquez got serious in an intimate, touching duet, but for the most part, with principal keyboardist Joela Jones rattling off Morton Gould’s perky score, the piece was a freewheeling romp.

No less delightful was “Son of Chamber Symphony,” by Stanton Welch, set to the Minimalist music of John Adams. Discovering the sensual in the mechanical and displaying feisty virtuosity, 16 dancers fluctuated organically from precise footwork and stiff, robotic gestures to flowing, lyrical lines. The work also complemented “Rite” perfectly with pounding bass drum and circular, ceremonial motifs.

But the clear audience favorite was “Adagio,” a brief setting of Khachaturian by choreographer Yuri Possokhov.

Little wonder people loved it. Though short, the piece was long on sensuality, and the two performers, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, were ideally matched. Again and again, the couple found new ways of embracing, new means of interacting and interlocking limbs. By the end, so deeply were they enmeshed, they resembled Klimt’s “The Kiss” in all its rapturous, ecstatic glory.