Joffrey Ballet celebrates 100th anniversary of 'The Rite of Spring'

February 28, 2013
Lincoln Journal Star
Jeff Korbelik

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Not long ago, Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley C. Wheater witnessed a European company performing “a very kind of contemporary piece of work” in London.

“I have to say I was not enjoying it,” he said.

Yet he wasn’t moved to voice an opinion as others in the audience were.

“It was one of those times that there was an argument going on in the theater during the piece,” Wheater recalled in a phone interview to promote the Joffrey’s performance Saturday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts. “People were screaming. This man was saying, ‘This is rubbish.’ And this woman was screaming at him. It was quite something.”

That’s why Wheater easily understands how a near-riot broke out among audience members 100 years ago when Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company premiered “Le Sacre du printemps” (The Rite of Spring) in Paris.

“Art is not supposed to be everyone’s cup of tea,” Wheater said. “I think it’s so subjective. That’s the beauty of it because it stirs in us a reaction or an emotion.”

As part of its Lied program, the Chicago company will dance the controversial piece to celebrate “The Rite of Spring’s” 100th anniversary. The Joffrey also will present Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” and the Nebraska premiere of Stanton Welch’s newest work, “Son of Chamber Symphony.”

It will be Joffrey’s third appearance at the Lied Center, but its first since 1994.

“The Rite of Spring” debuted May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees and featured music of up-and-coming composer Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich.

The dance depicted various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, which caused some audience members to react negatively to it, reportedly leading to fist fights with proponents of the work.

“I still think the piece carries some controversy,” Wheater said.

Why?

“When people go to see The Joffrey Ballet or the ballet, they have an idea of what they think ballet is,” he said. “When you get to ‘Le Sacre du Printemps,’ you realize that what Nijinsky did was very, very tribal -- a very kind of Slavic, tribal dancing.

“I think it went against the thoughts of the audience. They were thinking, they’ll see pointe shoes and tutus and what they thought was ballet.”

It was different for dancers, too. And still is, said Wheater, who danced Joffrey’s careful reconstruction of it in 1987, featuring Nijinsky’s original choreography, which was long believed to be lost.

“Even for us dancers it requires a whole different way of moving,” Wheater said. “We train a certain way all our lives, understanding the language of classical ballet.

“But this is very turned in. It’s a lot of complexity in rhythms. You’re asking all 42 people to understand what their rhythm is. … For us, it was a really great education as to what the original idea was and why it was so shocking when it was performed.”

Five more performances occurred in Paris after the premiere, followed by four more in London. And then the ballet part of it -- more or less -- disappeared. Stravinsky’s score, however, survived and thrived, becoming one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

“We know the music was groundbreaking,” Wheater said. “It’s still very contemporary today.”

Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra, under Maestro Edward Polochick, will perform Stravinsky’s masterpiece on May 5 at the Lied Center to recognize the 100th anniversary.

As for the ballet , it was Millicent Hodson who recreated it for the Joffrey after years of research. She pieced Nijinsky’s choreography back together from the original prompt books, sketches, photographs and survivor recollections. The Lincoln audience will see that recreation Saturday.

“When Robert Joffrey met Millicent, they were two people that were aligned with understanding what it was about the Ballets Russes that made it such a great company in those years that Diaghilev was the director,” Wheater said. “They were really transformative because it moved the art form forward.”

Wheater admitted “The Rite of Spring” is difficult to perform. Many of the dancers, including Wheater, have suffered lower back pain from dancing it because “we were having to rotate our legs in when we’re rotating them out every day in our training.”

Still, “we all could see the value in it,” he said. “We took it as part of our education.”

It will be an education for audience members as well, he said.

“It necessarily won’t appeal to everyone, but I think there’s great value in understanding it and realizing that this was the beginning of the 20th century, and it was groundbreaking,” Wheater explained. “We’ve moved forward in so many different ways, and it’s that experience in 1913 that has allowed that.”