Reflections on the Joffrey “Rite”

April 4, 2013
The Rite of Spring at One Hundred

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Welcome back to “Reflections on The Rite”! Though the blog has been recently dormant, “The Rite of Spring at 100″ has been raging across the University of North Carolina’s campus. We have witnessed in recent weeks the Joffrey Ballet; the International Contemporary Ensemble, Vijay Iyer, and Prashant Bhargava; the Cleveland Orchestra; and just last night, the premiere of a new work by Medhi Walkerski, a fascinating reflection on The Rite courtesy of the Nederlands Dans Theatre I. I’m excited for the upcoming events featuring Basil Twist and the Martha Graham dance company — buy tickets here. We will be documenting these efforts on the blog; you can read recent Huffington Post reports on the “Rite” project here.

Today’s post features one of UNC’s own: graduate student Jennifer Buxton, who studies Russian ballet. You can read here discussion of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and SITI Company’s “A Rite” here. In this post, Jennifer reports on the recent Joffrey performances.

Although no riot broke out this time, the audience at Memorial Hall recently could not contain their excitement and enthusiasm over what Chapel Hill has awaited all year long: the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Millicent Hodson’s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. While we probably will never know all of the specific details witnessed by that Paris audience in May 1913, this production gives today’s spectators a taste for the original production that caused an eruption and scandal at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. After listening to numerous lectures and discussions about the meaning and significance of The Rite over the academic year and after viewing the 1987 Joffrey reconstruction on Youtube several times, I was especially excited to finally see the production live on stage.

Before the performance on Saturday night I headed over to the Historic Playmakers Theatre to attend “Reconstructing The Rite” to gain more insight into the process of recreating the 1913 piece. Both Hodson, responsible for the choreography, and Kenneth Archer, in charge of the scenery and costumes, spoke about the monumental task of bringing a lost ballet back to life.

Hodson’s sources, which included the writings of Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava Nijinska, revealed elements of the dance of the chosen maiden. Hodson described one of the movements detailed in the writings as a ‘grand pas de chat with lightning arms’ which Hodson then demonstrated to the audience and showed several clips of past performances to demonstrate other steps and patterns in the choreography. Hodson also discussed the difficulties dancers face, even today, at counting Stravinsky’s score and led the crowd as we clapped out the rhythm for the lower and then the upper body.

Archer presented a series of detailed sketches of costumes, shoes, and makeup along with pictures of Nicolas Roerich’s original costumes and scenery. He explained that in order to recreate these items he first had to rediscover Roerich’s original color palette. The amount of detail in each of Archer’s drawing was extraordinary, for example the motifs hand painted on each group of dancer’s shoes and the specificity of each dancer’s makeup and hair. It was fascinating to learn about the methods utilized to reconstruct these components.

Before performing The Rite, the Joffrey presented two other pieces of choreography: Stanton Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony (2012) and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005). Joffrey dancer Victoria Jaiani was outstanding in both pieces. Her stunning lines and expressiveness were magnificent and both pieces brought the audience to their feet with applause.

And finally The Rite; from the familiar sound of the lone bassoon to the last note when the ancestors in bearskins lift the chosen maiden to the sky, the performance was fantastic. Having viewed videos of the piece several times I was delighted when I could anticipate what steps came next in the choreography. The whole company mastered the “turned in” jumps and falling down steps and overall delivered an extraordinary performance

It was interesting to note the differences between videos of the piece and the live show. The powerful red lighting towards the end of the first act, which seems to predict the violence in the second act, left a lasting impression. I also noticed different groups of dancers that had not caught my eye from just watching the ballet online, and although I missed seeing the impact of up-close shots of the dancers’ expressionless and stoic faces I had seen on Youtube, the overall experience of the live production was marvelous to behold.

I do wish, however, I had taken the advice of the dance scholars from the academic conference last October who had advised sitting in the balcony section in order to have an aerial view of the many circle formations throughout the choreography. I’ll have to remember that for next time!