'The Rite of Spring' hasn't lost its power to shock and amaze

February 4, 2013
Orange County Register
Paul Hodgins


At the Los Angeles Music Center last weekend it seemed like old times for Southern California's dance community when the Joffrey Ballet revived one of its most revered works, a reconstruction of "The Rite of Spring," to mark the centennial of the ballet's birth. The event was part of the Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center season.

The raucous 36-minute depiction of a primitive Slavic tribe's spring ritual was the highlight of an evening that contained another more recent masterpiece, William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" (1987) and a third work that was merely superb, Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence" (2008).

Those of a certain age, such as this reviewer, remember the first time the Joffrey unveiled "Rite" more than 25 years ago on the same stage. Los Angeles enjoyed a rare moment at the apex of the dance world when the Joffrey's annual residencies in L.A. from 1982-91 brought first-class ballet to a dance-starved city.

"Rite" epitomized the Joffrey's ambition at a bittersweet time when the company's founder was terminally ill yet striving to achieve a lifelong dream. Joffrey had yearned since the 1950s to bring "Rite" back to life, and it was one of his last triumphs – he died in March 1988.

The legendary collaboration between choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, composer Igor Stravinsky and set and costume designer Nicholas Roerich caused a riot at its 1913 premiere and is often cited as the birth of modernism, yet it was lost soon after its creation. Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, a husband-and-wife team with vast multidisciplinary skills, toiled for years to reconstruct the work. Hodson, who trained as a choreographer, began the herculean task in 1971 as a Berkeley grad student and soon attracted Joffrey's attention.

Many have debated how much of the choreography is Nijinsky's and how much is Hodson's, but such quibbles are quickly forgotten as soon as the first unearthly notes of Stravinsky's score begin the ballet. "Rite" is much more than a historical exercise or museum piece. Experiencing it can be a shock, especially if you know a bit about concert dance and orchestral music of the era. In little more than half an hour, Nijinsky and his colleagues completely and convincingly repudiated the prevailing cultural conventions of their time.

As the dance begins, the dancers stand and move pigeon-toed, a mockery of ballet's classic turned-out position. Their hands claw at the air; their arms are drawn close into their bodies. They drop unexpectedly to the stage, bounce back and form slow-moving circles.

Stravinsky doesn't just nibble at the edges of musical modernism. As the dancers begin their strange ritual he provides a chord that must have sounded like cacophony to early 20th-century ears, a clashing juxtaposition of E-flat major and E major pounded repeatedly and loudly by the strings with slashing syncopations.

Roerich's sets and costumes paint a stark picture of a raw and savage world governed by suspicion and the mysterious commands of wizened elders.

The story culminates with the frenzied dance of the Chosen One, a young woman doomed to death. On Saturday, Elizabeth Hansen performed the demanding solo's dozens of awkward leaps with a manic energy that made her seem possessed.

The cumulative effect of the Joffrey's "Rite" is deeply moving, and it leaves you with a sense of both exhilaration and loss. What would Nijinsky have created if his career hadn't ended so prematurely and tragically?

Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" is emblematic of the American-born choreographer's style: athletic and ballet-based yet lithe, generous and exuberant in its contours. It's universally popular, and no wonder. Territorial, aggressive, with thrilling moments of bravura solo work and dynamic, geometrically defined group patterns, it's tightly contained inside a sharp-edged lighting design by Forsythe. At first it looks as if the dancers working beyond the verge of the lighted stage are in the wrong place, but it's part of the choreographer's vision. This dance seems to be a continual activity unfolding on a vast canvas, and we're seeing only a fragment.

Liang's "Age of Innocence" was the evening's tamest ballet. Inspired by the writing of Jane Austen, it comes across as highly formalized social dance punctuated by achingly beautiful solo work and pas de deux. Elegant Victoria Jalani and long-limbed Fabrice Calmels were standouts in their pas de deux.

The only disappointing aspect of Saturday's performance was the work of the corps de ballet, which was not always precise and occasionally less energetic than expected. Perhaps that's the price to be paid when the centerpiece of every show is an iconoclastic ballet that exhausts even the audience with its feral intensity.