Review: 'The Rite of Spring' still holds power a century later in Joffrey Ballet

March 15, 2013
Ken Ross


AMHERST - "The Rite of Spring" has an aura.

The dance caused a riot a hundred years ago in Paris.

But what may be surprising to people watching the work - which was performed as close to the original as possible by the Joffrey Ballet on Thursday as part of a superb program - is just how simple and straightforward the piece seems a century later.

People dance to celebrate the return of spring. Then the "Chosen One" dances to death as a sacrifice to the Gods.

I overheard two young woman walking out of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts after the show that they could dance in the Joffrey judging by 'The Rite of Spring.'

It's easy to see why someone would think that. When the curtain finally came up after what seemed like several minutes of Igor Stravinsky's sublime, driving score, several male dancers hopped around in unison wearing matching white outfits with bright patterns on them.

Then there was a lot of clapping and stomping in unison as well in "Rite" in time to primitive sounding music. There was obviously a lot more going on during the dance. The dancers' movements conjured up a primitive atmosphere where the possibility of a young woman dancing herself to death seemed real.

But it was easy to understand why some audience members howled and laughed on May 29, 1913 when the work was first performed in Paris' Theatre des Champs-Elysees. There were no dancing swans or maidens on tip toes. Just flatfooted, peasant-like people stomping around on stage.

We're truly blessed that the Joffrey painstakingly restored "The Rite of Spring" in 1987. Because while choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky's movements might seem primitive, that's partly the point.

You can see traces of "The Rite of Spring" in the works created by Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham and especially Pina Bausch and Mark Morris. That probably explains why Bausch created her own, even more primitive, mud-soaked version of the piece and Morris' group will premiere his version of "The Rite of Spring" in June in California.

The Joffrey's performance Thursday in Amherst also illustrated the diversity of modern dance and ballet nowadays. Because while the Chicago-based dance company might be well known for resurrecting the original "Rite of Spring," they're also renowned for their fleet-footed, precise ballet technique.

The first work on Thursday's program "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" showed off that technique. William Forsythe's work is a pure dance piece, sort of like George Balanchine's "Jewels." "In the Middle" isn't about anything. It's just movement and music.

Here, the music by Thom Willems was sharp and angular. And so were the dancers' movements in their dark green leotards. "In the Middle" has the feel of a dress rehearsal, especially with a few dancers lingering near the back of stage while others perform. It doesn't "mean" anything and you could drive yourself around the bend trying to decode it. There's music. There's dancing. What more do you need?

The next work was the shortest on the program but it received the loudest applause. That might be because the solo featured Ware-native and Joffrey Ballet company member Matthew Adamczyk. "Lacrymosa" by former Joffrey member Edward Stierle features the music of Mozart's "Requiem."

Adamczyk brought just the right amount of intensity to this elegiac work, in which the dancer seemed to reaching up towards the Heavens and dip his hands into an imaginary pool of refreshing water. Stierle clearly created this piece to be a show-stopping work. And Adamczyk clearly delivered.

The final piece before "The Rite of Spring" was Stanton Welch's "Son of Chamber Symphony." This three-part work took a little while to get going. The first movement seemed to wander aimlessly for a while. But the second and third movements brought out the best in the dancers.

Like "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," "Son of Chamber Symphony" didn't really seem to be about anything. But as many people have rightfully pointed out many times, a great dance doesn't have to be about anything as long as there's great dancing in it. And there was plenty of that on stage at the Fine Arts Center on Thursday night.