Were it possible to transport yourself back in time to the premiere performance of a once scandalous and now iconic work of art, what would you choose to see? Perhaps it would be Ibsen's A Doll's House, waiting for the outraged reaction of the proper Copenhagen audience to the reverberatory thunderclap of Nora's slammed door? Or maybe you would have preferred to be on hand for any of the versions of Salome--by Wilde, or Strauss, or Maude Allan--soaking in the catcalls and faints during the "Dance of the Seven Veils"? If pressed to choose, however, a great many of us would likely pick the May 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. Staged in Paris by the scandal-courting Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, and with choreography by the sexually mercurial Vaslav Nijinsky, the work is most famous for introducing the world to the legendarily dissonant score by Igor Stravinsky, music that has since entered the modernist canon, but that at the time apparently sent audience members screaming into the streets covering their ears.
There have been countless danced "Rites" since then, with an updating of the sexual and gender politics of the original (in which a sacrificial female dances herself to death) almost becoming its own rite of passage for a choreographer and/or ballet company. One thinks especially in this regard of Pina Bausch's game-chaging take on the piece, in which she bridged Stravinsky's music and libretto with the influence of Mary Wigman's expressionistic choreography and thereafter altered the course of Tanztheater Wuppertal's compositional and thematic focus (for better or worse, depending on how one views Bausch's subsequent explorations of gendered violence and the trope of the female victim).
Now it is the turn of Ballet BC, with this weekend's final instalment in the company's 2014-15 season showcasing not one but two new interpretations of this classic work. The first, RITE, comes from Artistic Director Emily Molnar who, working with scenic designer Omer Arbel (the furniture and lighting designer of Bocci fame) and experimental composer Jeremy Schmidt, picks up from where the 1913 work left off, giving us a post-sacrificial gloss on the original movement and design. Or at least what we know of both. While Nijinsky's choreography was reconstructed in 1987 for the Joffrey Ballet based on the scraps of notation that remained, press reviews of the eight premiere performances, and some eyewitness testimony, no one can be sure if it is historically accurate. Nicholas Roerich's original sets were also destroyed (on the orders of Diaghilev), although there are interviews with him discussing his vision for the piece. And, judging from her program note, Molnar has certainly done her research, reading up not just on The Rite of Spring, but also on various major and minor artistic currents swirling about it. Her movement deliberately references Nijinsky's. The dancers' hands and arms are frequently splayed at their sides, and their knees bent inward: from this position they jump vertically in the air, or else fall to and then rise in waves from the ground. Clad in their shimmery black body suits (the costumes are by Kate Burrows) and set against Abel's white, rune-like set, the dancers reminded me of walking hieroglyphs, with their largely improvised and often highly gestural movement vocabulary, when paired with the strobe lighting effects programmed by James Proudfoot, spelling out a language of the body that is simultaneously unique to them and rhythmically entraining of the group. (That the dancers, especially Connor Gnam as the headdress-wearing lead "Shadow," wouldn't look out of place on a club floor during fetish night surely contributes to this--the man seated next to me leaned over near the start of the piece and asked if I was reminded of Madonna's "Erotica.") Schmidt's atmospheric industrial score is a key and maximally entrancing element in all of this, its droning synth sounds just as sensorily jarring in their way as Stravinsky's percussiveness. There is much I still need to reflect upon with this piece, which is why I hope it becomes a mainstay of Ballet BC's repertoire; but one of the things I responded to most enthusiastically last night was Molnar's use of stillness, letting her dancers--and us--absorb the changes in dynamic range and pitch and tempo in Schmidt's music, before releasing what has been incorporated by the body in successive explosions of kinetic energy.
Paired with Molnar's RITE is Gustavo Ramirez Sansano's Consagracion, which he choreographs to the original Stravinsky score, adding a new set design by Luis Crespo (a series of brown woven and inverted conical structures that descend from and rise up to the rafters, evoking a magical forest). The dancers, forming a horizontal tableau downstage at the start of the piece are all clad in similar androgynous white shifts--the kind that children of both sexes from Victorian-era photographs might have been posed in. And, indeed, Ramirez Sansano takes as his inspiration for the piece that fraught ritual of puberty when we transition from at once innocently sexless and polymorphously perverse erotic beings into sexually aware young adults whose desires and behaviour must apparently conform to prescribed gender binaries. Except that Ramirez Sansano, thematically and choreographically, sets out to trouble and resist this expectation--in dance and life. As the dancers form different duos and trios, helping each other to remove the top part of their shifts while exploring some deeply sensual partnering, it is a male-male couple that emerges as the pulsating sexual life force of the piece. They sniff and nuzzle at each other's necks, wrap their torsos around one another, roll above and underneath each other across the floor and--here was an unexpectedly delightful kinetic sight--kiss for an extended period of time.
Just when I thought the Rite couldn't produce any more surprises, there is this: a glorious springtime celebration of the right to sexual freedom.