LA's Rite: Joffrey Ballet's Performance of the The Rite of Spring

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Le Sacre du Printemps - Credit Herbert Migdoll

Le Sacre du Printemps – Credit Herbert Migdoll

Three couples danced with elegance and measured emotion, before the lighting changed and Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels stepped up to amaze Los Angeles, dancing a captivating pas de deux, with a deeply sensitive and hypnotic quality. As it ended, Calmels pulled an arched Jaiani gently and devastatingly slowly into his arms as the spotlight dimmed and the curtain drifted downwards in a combined motion that felt cinematic in poise and perfection. The standing ovation was richly deserved.

I know, I know. That doesn’t sound like the Joffrey’s authentic recreation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s original 1913 choreography of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and that’s because it wasn’t. It was Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, set to Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel. Wheeldon’s piece formed something of a high point in an immaculately programmed evening, which closed with the historical Rite of Spring.  While the mixed program was certainly enjoyable, it was clearly more than just innovated choreography on display–it sought to demonstrate how far dance has come in 100 years. 

Few companies have the experimental history that Joffrey does, yet, Joffrey is still known for risk-taking choreography, style and subject matter. From their revival of Kurt Jooss‘s The Green Table in 1967 to Prince’s Billboards in 1993, they are ballet mavericks – self proclaimed and continually proven.  The opening night of their engagement at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion upheld this tradition and served as a delightful kick off to the Music Center’s season-long celebration of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring centennial.

Le Sacre du Printemps - Credit Herbert Migdoll

Le Sacre du Printemps – Credit Herbert Migdoll

Millicent Hodson, a choreographer and dance historian, along with her husband and art historian Kenneth Archer, spent 15 years reconstructing Nijinsky’s dance artifact The Rite of Spring. (Interestingly, Hodson and Archer first presented their reconstruction here in LA twenty-five years ago). Everything from the beautiful backdrops and colorful costumes, originally created by the great Nicholas Roerich, to Nijinsky’s avant-garde choreography was painstakingly researched in an effort to faithfully revive the classic. Their revival seems so perfect that you can feel Nijinsky’s struggle, almost desperate, to completely abandon the norms of his time. The perversity of ballet dancers not looking “pretty” and the simple decision to turn in ones feet seems almost quaint by today’s standards, but in 1913 it was literally riotous.

The steps are simple, though exhausting, but the energy captured in this recreation was impressive. The most thrilling moment of The Rite came when the full cast all began shaking violently in 42 simultaneous solos intended to show the overwhelming ecstasy of the earth waking up.  The choreography – fraught with circular formations, hunched over triplets, pigeon-toed feet and frantic jumps – fed on panicked overtones of death and anonymity.  With its story hinging on the ritual of sacrificing a maiden at the dawn of spring, The Rite gets to the heart of a society’s persecution of the individual and it was created right on the cusp of Russia’s 1917 communist revolution.

In keeping with the destruction of the individual, it was nearly impossible to pick out one Joffrey dancer from the next amid their similar bright Russian pagan peasant costumes, all of which somehow made the selection of the Chosen One all the more perverse.  The Chosen One – the girl singled out to fulfill the pagan fertility ritual of dancing herself to death –  was decided amongst the women of the tribe, but they soon abandoned her and it was the men (some dressed in ominous bear skins) who take pleasure in watching her die.

Le Sacre du Printemps - Credit Herbert Migdoll

Le Sacre du Printemps – Credit Herbert Migdoll

While the themes still resonate, Nijinsky’s production is certainly a ballet from a different time. Viewing this incredible reconstruction was like watching an early silent film, or a history book come to life. But like the earliest silent films, though seemingly rudimentary and primitive, it was clear how vital the work was to the art-form. Nijinsky laid the groundwork for modern dance, starting the conversation that would eventually lead to works by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and even our contemporary choreographers. Therefore, it was only fitting that The Rite of Spring was preceded by recent contemporary ballets from Stanton Welch and Christopher Wheeldon.

The night opened with Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony. Set to the music of minimalist composer John Adams, it dazzled with its blend of angular classical style and contemporary, almost cubist sophistication. First premiered last August, there are shades of Swan Lake in the partnering, while the fierce allegro’s geometric formations invoke George Balanchine’s Agon. The three movements, each danced with fervor, whetted the appetite of the audience and served as a perfect intro for the evening despite minor shakiness in the first movement. Amber Neumann and April Daly were commanding in their roles, both dancing with strength and icy seduction in the first and third movements.

The second movement of Welch’s piece featured Jaiani and Calmels dancing their first pas de deux of the night, which was nothing short of stunning.  Jaiani’s fluidity and perfect extensions, were ideally complemented by Calmels’s strength. The wafer-thin tutus on the girls, the plain squares on the backdrop and intentionally basic lighting added to the playfulness of the piece, further calling the blend of classical and modern dance into consideration.

Then came Wheeldon’s aforementioned  After the Rain. A stunning piece of emotion and technique. Wheeldon’s ability to innovate partnering with diverse choreography and imperceptible strength never ceases to amaze me, as does his understanding of communicating emotion through dance. In the closing of the final pas, the gorgeous image of Calmels, pulling Jaiani gently into his arms as the curtain falls was literally breathtaking, as there was a collective gasp from the audience.

It was an exuberant moment, hinting at the potential for our current crop of dancers and choreographers to invoke the spirit of Nijinsky with dance that rejuvenates and challenges not only itself, but its audience’s expectations.

"After the Rain" ft. Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels - Photo by Herbert Migdoll

Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in After the Rain – Photo by Herbert Migdoll



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