Ballet: The Joffrey Ballet “The Rite of Spring,” “Son of Chamber Symphony,” and “After the Rain”

by Jane Rosenberg

It’s hard to believe that one hundred years have passed since Igor Stravinsky, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes premiered Le Sacre du Printemps. As famously reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer (under the artistic supervision of Robert Joffrey) and in performance by the Joffrey Ballet at the Dorothy Chandler through February 3, “The Rite of Spring” remains startlingly modern and vivid – a breathtaking evocation of pre-Christian Slavic man – still working its magic in the twenty-first century.

Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky
Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky

By now, dance and music lovers are well aware of the notorious 1913 premiere in Paris, branding “Rite” as one of the most controversial and important works of art of any century.  The music, with its complex rhythms and pounding dissonances, and the choreography, the antithesis of classical ballet with its hunched postures, bent arms, and turned in feet, enraged the audience, eliciting boos and fistfights in the aisles. By most accounts, Stravinsky was in despair. Diaghilev, however, was delighted with the scandal, while poor Nijinsky had to count out the rhythms over the roar of the jeering crowd because the dancers were unable to hear the music.

Seated with a respectful and enthusiastic audience Friday evening, I couldn’t help but reflect on the arc of modernism and its integration into our contemporary vocabulary.  No longer are dance audiences shocked by quaking bodies or the sexual implications of dancers writhing on stage. No longer do music audiences balk at percussive dissonances and polyrhythms.  And no longer are dancers unable to follow offbeat accents and shifting time signatures (as Nijinsky stated, while in rehearsal he had to pound a floorboard so the dancers could feel the cues.).  After all, we’ve absorbed and assimilated Stravinsky’s musical achievements and Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography.  Yet when one thinks of what the work must have represented in 1913 – how shocking and advanced it was – it only adds to our appreciation of this seminal piece of art.

Thanks to Archer and Hodson’s exhaustive research, not only does the stage come alive with Nijinsky’s genius, but also with Nicholas Roerich’s sparkling backdrops and costumes.  An archaeologist, folklorist, and painter, Roerich worked closely with Stravinsky on the scenario for the ballet. The result is the perfect marriage of music, visual art, and dance, which stands at the summit of artistic achievement.

The Joffrey Ballet
The Joffrey Ballet

Under the baton of the Joffrey Ballet’s music director, Scott Speck, the orchestra –composed mainly of L.A. Opera musicians — did full credit to Stravinsky’s iconic score.  First, the plaintive bassoon wove its spell, then as other instruments joined in, the curtain rose on Roerich’s verdant landscape.  As the insistent pulse of the music gained momentum, the dancers, dressed in white, red, and ochre began the foot stomping choreography that so enraged Parisian audiences.  The men, crouched and bent, exploded into motion, their movements emanating from their hips and stomachs; the women raced in with their legs flying and then quickly reverted to flat feet with toes turned inward, their heads slanted on necks like rag dolls.  As I watched Act I, “The Adoration of the Earth” unfold, I felt as if I was witnessing early man’s encounter with the mysteries of existence.

Act II, “The Sacrifice,” features a circle of young girls trudging counter-clockwise in a fatal march towards destiny.  As the music grows ominous, the sacrificial maiden, dubbed The Chosen One, is forced into the center of the circle.  Men, dressed in bearskins, lumber onto the stage and surround her, pawing the earth with their feet like feral creatures.

The Joffrey Ballet
The Joffrey Ballet

In a bravura performance, Erica Lynette Edwards danced an uncanny range of emotions, cycling from fear to supplication to anger, her body bursting into bent knee jumps, her hands chopping air, her arms flailing, her fists pounding the earth.  With knees shaking in terror, she spasmed into violent arcs and mad spinning – a dance to exhaustion and imminent death.

If the measure of a ballerina’s dramatic abilities in the nineteenth century repertory is Giselle and her mad scene, then surely the twentieth century standard should be the agonized terror of The Chosen One. Here we have a ballet for all time, a moment when sophisticated Western civilization meets the roots of man’s consciousness.

Opening the evening was Stanton Welch’s “Son of Chamber Symphony” with music by John Adams followed by Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” with music by Arvo Pärt from “Tabula Rasa” and “Spiegel im Spiegel.” Both dances were an intelligent pairing with “Rite of Spring” bringing the radical artistic lessons of the past into the minimalist present.

“Son of Chamber Symphony,” with Adams’ winning score, was securely handled by the orchestra.  The ballet displayed the beauty of classical dance coupled with the geometric abstraction of bodies in space, defined by the elegant lines of legs and arms and the sharply spherical tutus that bounced and swayed, taking on a life of their own.

“After the Rain” mesmerized, particularly when the female corps, exhibiting a strong technique, crouched in a row, each rotating a single leg in unison.  The movement seemed to refer to the hands of a clock, circling the dial, as time and the music flowed on.  The reverence on display in Pärt’s music was at its height in “Spiegel im Spiegel,” when, against a rose colored background, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels danced a stirring pas de deux.

With “Rite of Spring” and these two additions to their repertory, the Joffrey dancers once again prove a company worthy of the treasures of the world’s most interesting choreographers.

To read more reviews and posts by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for ChildrenJane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.

To read more iRoM reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


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