It's next to impossible to imagine a ballet causing a near riot, but that's what happened 100 years ago when the Ballets Russes debuted The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. Sunday night at the Orpheum Theater, Omaha was able to experience this extraordinarily radical ballet (but fortunately not the violence it incited), thanks to a stunning performance by the Joffrey Ballet.
The Chicago-based company is, of course, one of the country's seminal ballet companies, a standard-bearer for just how astonishing ballet can continue to be. That's why the performance wasn't just about commemorating one of the world's most important ballets, it was also about showcasing ballet as a critically important art form that persists in pushing boundaries.
The evening opened with The Age of Innocence, a sensually controlled piece choreographed by Edwaard Liang for the Joffrey in 2008. Although the title calls to mind the Edith Wharton novel of the same name, Liang derived his inspiration from Jane Austen's Regency period, when marriages were arranged and private meetings between single men and women (at least in proper society) were largely forbidden.
Set to music by Philip Glass (Symphony No. 3) and Thomas Newman (Little Children, End Title), the piece re-creates a social gathering of five couples at a dance, one of the few events where they can meet, albeit under the watchful eye of society, which orchestrates their every movement. Jeraldine Mendoza and Mauro Villanova re-enacted this scenario in a pas de deux loaded with heated passion, subtly demonstrating the precious nature of every fleeting touch and glance. The ensuing dance between Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels — particularly their adagio — underscored this further with breathtaking longing, as they demonstrated their forbidden romance with unrequited sexiness.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was even sexier and raw in an erotically primal way. William Forsythe created this work in 1987 for the Paris Opera Ballet, and unlike the former, there are no sidelong glances and prim coquetry. Instead, it is all about the dramatic give and take between the sexes, and the women were every bit as outwardly aggressive as the men. The techno percussive music by Thom Willems drove this home, with the sound of matches being lit echoing the passions igniting on stage.
It was especially remarkable how precisely the dancers executed choreography so full of emotional challenges and, even more important, technical prowess. They marched, ran and practically battled one another with jaw-dropping and tightly controlled athleticism. The gestures were quick, bold and almost violent in nature, as if neither gender was willing to concede supremacy to the other.
Of course, the reason the audience came out was to experience The Rite of Spring, scored by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. The Joffrey is perhaps the only dance company in the world that executes The Rite of Spring exactly right, because it has meticulously reconstructed the collaborators' vision. It does this not just by using the original music and dance steps, but also by reproducing the set designs, costumes and makeup from 1913.
In French, the original title was Le Sacre du Printemps, with “sacre” perhaps more accurately translated as “consecration.” That's because the ballet is about a pagan tribe ritually sacrificing a young maiden to usher in spring. The dancers' movements were jerky and primitive, yet perfectly and exactingly controlled. There was something terrifying about how they moved in a predatory tribe toward their Chosen One, danced with alternating resignation and panic by Elizabeth Hansen. Her brutal physicality was a wonder to watch, and she executed close to 100 jumps in her pivotal scene.
Although set chronologically backward from 2008 to 1913, the evening's three distinct performances cohesively demonstrated what an enormous influence The Right of Spring had on 20th-century ballet. As the audience celebrated its 100th anniversary and the Joffrey with roaring applause, it will be fascinating to see how it continues to do so as we enter the second decade of the 21st.
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