Joffrey Ballet's 'Rite' deserves ovation

March 22, 2013
Portland Press Herald
Jennifer Brewer


When legendary ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring") premiered in Paris in 1913, the audience broke into a riot of catcalls and fighting, rebelling against the rebellion inherent in the choreography and storyline.

On Thursday in Portland, the audience broke into a well-earned standing ovation. The historical piece anchored the Joffrey Ballet's program at Merrill Auditorium, presented by Portland Ovations.

Watching "Rite" in its centennial year, as painstakingly reconstructed by the Joffrey in 1987, was, quite simply, really, really cool.

It's staggering to contemplate the work and devotion involved in achieving such an apparently accurate reconstruction; although we will never see "Rite" in its original incarnation, the Joffrey's choreography, costumes and simple painted scenery seemed to call out, "Nijinsky!"

Igor Stravinsky's music for the piece has become a standby for orchestras worldwide, but to see this quirky piece performed as originally intended was a rare treat, especially from a historical perspective.

"Rite" was colorfully super-saturated, with almost too much movement texture to take in, and danced with vigor by the ensemble. The odd, turned-in movements that were so shocking 100 years ago, not to mention" Rite's" storyline of a pagan sacrifice, appear, in the light of history, like an encapsulation of what was to come.

Modern dance pioneers like Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan rejected the formality of ballet -- both in technique and in fairy-tale dramatics -- in favor of exploration of more natural, and often more primitive, movement. "Rite" reads like a primer of dance revolution.

Along with "Le Sacre du Printemps," the program included two contemporary ballet pieces from the Joffrey's repertoire. "Age of Innocence," a strikingly inventive piece in five movements by Edwaard Liang, to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, was lovely and fascinating.

The dancers were fluid and strong, in white costumes lit subtly with gold, in front of ceiling-high red velvet curtains. Liang's choreography achieved a remarkable blend of courtliness, classicism and modernism.

Despite a very modern approach, the impression was classically beautiful, with floating arms and great delicacy.

Almost every movement seemed brand new -- including dancers skimming across the floor, one intricate lift after another and partnering that included responses to gesture as well as touch, with joint impulses.

Dancers' unison and formations were neat but non-regimented, and the floor was used in an unusually interactive way, as an active part of the dance, not a mere place to land; dancers performed slides and elastic drops while maintaining a sense of elevation.

In the second movement, "First Dialogue," Kara Zimmerman and Rory Hohenstein performed lifts and holds with her wrapped around his waist, blurring their physical boundaries and arising from unusual positions such as her gliding across the floor on her pointes.

Zimmerman's extensions showed a lovely restraint; working legs were placed precisely for artistic effect, not pushed gymnastically high.

In the fourth movement, "Obey Thee," Christine Rocas and Ogulcan Borova danced a featured duet that, again, combined elegance and innovation.

Borova spun Rocas so that her pointes made a circle on the floor, before she ended on pointe. He pulled her leg from arabesque over his shoulder until she sat on his back; this move's weirdness, yet beauty, exemplified "Age's" brilliance.

"Son of Chamber Symphony," by Stanton Welch with music by John Adams, was performed with no backdrop, in front of Portland's majestic Kotzschmar organ.

This setting provided an interesting contrast to the piece's design; the dancers wore parodies of classical ballet costumes, clever but somehow bordering on obscenity, with ultra-low-cut unitards patterned like men's princely jackets and rigid-yet-floppy flat tutus apparently made of foam.

"Son" had some satisfying choreographic moments (mostly during an elegant duet by Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels), but its most interesting aspect lay in its visual effects, including square spotlights, with circular shadows from the women's overly flat tutus.

Nonetheless, it was a great opportunity to see the fabulously elegant Jaiani in person. Despite a head's difference in height, she and Calmels are long-term, practiced partners; his support enhanced her own lightness, balance and line-perfect limbs.

Jennifer Brewer of Saco is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer.