Joffrey brings original ‘Rite of Spring’ back to life

March 2, 2013
The Austin American-Statesman
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

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American-Statesman Staff

“The Rite of Spring” caused a riot when it premiered in 1913 at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

The audience erupted in raucous shouts when the dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo — poised pigeon-toed, torsos hunched, elbows bent in the opposite of classical position — began stomping flat-footed to Stravinsky’s wild rhythms.

Yelling, pitching chairs — the audience’s uproar drowned out the music, even though some thought the 30-minute ballet and its musical score brilliant and revolutionary. Others thought it outrageous and disastrous. Fistfights broke out between the two factions. The police were called.

Nevertheless, “The Rite of Spring” was almost instantly recognized as milestone moment, one that emphatically declared that the modern era had arrived.

The ballet was performed only eight times. And while Stravinsky’s score went on to become a staple of the orchestral repertoire, the choreography by ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky was long thought lost to history.

Now, the Joffrey Ballet brings its production of “The Rite of Spring” — a version carefully reconstructed after years of research — to Austin for two performances Tuesday and Wednesday at the Bass Concert Hall.

With this year’s centenary of the ballet, the Joffrey is touring its production (first presented in 1987) nationally.

(“The Rite of Spring” is receiving plenty of centenary love locally, too. Last month, Ballet Austin presented Stephen Mills’ version. Earlier this season, Austin Symphony Orchestra devoted a concert to the Stravinsky’s score.)

It may be impossible today to fathom how shocking “The Rite of Spring” seemed a century ago. But then in 1913, Picasso’s cubist figures seemed sacrilegious and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” profane.

“The Rite of Spring” was not a ballet in any traditional sense.

Based on ancient Slavic myths about the renewal of spring (and including a ritual sacrifice of a young maiden), “Rite” followed no clear narrative path and featured no individual characters to lead the dramatic action. Instead, there was Nijinsky’s unconventional, neo-primitivist choreography, with its sudden jumps and shudderings, movement that seemed foreign and aggressive.

After becoming known for his gravity-defying leaps and dramatic character portrayals, Najinsky shirked the traditional balletic ideals of grace and lightness for movement that looked primal and earth-bound.

Then there were artist Nicholas Roerich’s ethnographic designs for Slavic costumes that seemed barbaric, lacking in ballet’s usual frills and fancy.

And of course, Stravinsky’s rhythmically frenzied score was filled with bold experiments in dissonance and grounded by strains of Russian folk music.

Never completely notated nor filmed, the ballet was performed in London after its Paris premiere. But then World War I broke out, and a few years later, Nijinsky’s career was cut short by mental illness.

Then in the early 1970s, dance scholar Millicent Hodson, along with collaborator and husband Kenneth Archer, began a 15-year search, piecing together original scores, paintings, reviews, notes and a few rare first-person accounts to reconstruct the original “Rite of Spring” choreography, sets and costumes.

The search led to Austin and UT’s Ransom Center, where one of the original Roerich-designed costumes was unearthed in the center’s costume collection.

The Joffrey’s “Rite of Spring” shares the bill with two contemporary short ballets: “After the Rain,” by Christopher Wheeldon to the music of Arvo Pärt, and “Son of Chamber Symphony” by Stanton Welch, to the music of John Adams.

Both are thoroughly 21st-century dances to thoroughly 21st-century music. And both likely couldn’t exist without some enormous creative debt to the original “Rite of Spring.”

Now, a 21st-century audience might just be able to discern that.