Joffrey Ballet to celebrate giants in 'Legends'

February 5, 2013
Chicago Tribune
Sid Smith

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Robert Joffrey worshipped deeply, from afar.

So genuine was his devotion to the legendary past - say the Paris of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with its wildly rich collection of visual artists, designers, composers and choreographers -- that he bid his company to painstakingly recover some masterpieces from that 20th century peak of creative collaboration.

And lucky Los Angeles was the first city, back in 1987, to gaze upon the Joffrey Ballet's most famous reconstruction of them all: "Rite of Spring," or "Le Sacre du Printemps," as it's known around the rest of the world (also referred to by musicians and dancers simply as "Sacre.")

So, naturally, there it was on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, celebrating its 100th birthday -- yes, the infamous Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet that caused a Parisian audience to riot at its 1913 premiere ("ballet brought to barbarism" and "music gone mad" wrote critics.)

Nijinsky's stylized choreography - dancers moving in profile at times, as in bas relief, like figures on a Greek vase; the sacrificial virgin, standing in the now-iconic pose as Nijinsky was often depicted, with head tilted sideways, eyes vacant, knees slightly bent, toes turned in - wholly rejected the classical ballet idiom.

And Stravinsky's cataclysmic score - with its skewed meters and pounding rhythms -- would haunt the halls of concert music from then to now.

Yet, a century later, our vision has broadened, our ears have stretched.

Now that doesn't mean we no longer admire immensely the meticulous Hodson/Archer recreation of the original "Sacre," with its attention to historical detail.

It's still startling, for instance, to see the tightly circling Maidens, facing outwards and lit overhead, along with other intricate interweavings, rock against the score's rhythms of foreboding.

But, pardon me, the whole of it seems puny today. Because the music has eaten the ballet! The visual events onstage are dwarfed by the score.

We're now used to hearing augmented orchestras turn "Sacre" - by itself - into an unequaled feast, more vast and overwhelming than any theater could contain. Our own Philharmonic powers through the score, courtesy of Salonen, Dudamel, et al - even though the pit band here, despite a wayward trumpet entry, did a creditable job, led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck.

Still, the adoring crowds seemed to get what they came for.

Speck also made the most of excerpts from Philip Glass's Symphony No. 3, the basis for Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence," which showed off the company's superb dancers - though he could lose the Jane Austen title borrowing.

But William Forsythe's constant-composer-companion Thom Willems surely offers too much of a crashing thing for the choreographer's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," another engrossing exercise in his break-apart-put-together ballets of inordinate intrigue.

Meanwhile other events beckoned. And raised a question...

What, for instance, do Midori, Meredith Monk and Helmuth Rilling have in common? They are all musical brands, that's what.

The still-girlish violinist, known by her single name since blazing into the spotlight as a wunderkind more than three decades ago, recently played with the LA Philharmonic, led by a surprisingly uncommanding Pablo Heras-Casado, and put a virtuosa's shine on Peter Eötvös's 2nd Violin Concerto, cutely titled "DoReMi," and heard in its world premiere.

Intermedia maven Monk, now 71, has been collecting cult fans for four decades. Her brand of vocalizing, unique in the sound kingdom, her clear but complex compositions and theatrical esoterica, drew the usual suspects to UCLA's Freud Playhouse for "On Behalf of Nature."

At the same campus, and in that rarest of occasions - a completely sold out Royce Hall - music lovers showed up on a wet, blustery, cold night to hear acclaimed German maestro Rilling lead the LA Chamber Orchestra in Mozart's 39th Symphony and D-minor Requiem.

Talk about a diverse collection, it would be these three performing artists.