Orchestra's "Rite of Spring' (3rd review)

How to sacrifice a virgin? Let me count the ways

Kichtchenko aloft: Tough act to follow.
Kichtchenko aloft: Tough act to follow.

Let's not forget that Igor Stravinsky named the work that's currently being honored in its 100th anniversary year Le Sacre du Printemps, and that its English translation is The Rite of Spring. Remember also that Stravinsky composed for a ballet and not merely for an orchestra. Over the past century so many choreographers translated Le Sacre into different dance languages that its Russo-Franco origins have been over-watered, parched, starched or watered down, depending on the artist.

I wasn't around when the then virtually unknown Martha Graham danced the sacrificial virgin under Leopold Stokowski's baton with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930. Stokowski had given the work its American orchestral debut eight years earlier but had wished a full-scale dance version. He put it on at the larger-scale Metropolitan Opera House at Broad and Poplar Streets, which accommodated both the ballet and the orchestra.

I offer thumbprints of some I've seen just to give a smattering of the variety of takes that artists have used when creating a Rite.

Pornography in Warsaw

— The most explosively pornographic Rite I've seen to date was the Emil Wesolowski Ballet for the National Opera of Warsaw in 2000. The following year the visual artist Katarzyna Kozyra, a 1999 winner at the Venice Biennale, made her debut as a choreographer with her version in the Body-Mind Festival, also in Warsaw. It was more performance art than dance, but sculpturally and structurally sound. Both Strawinsky (original Polish spelling) and Nijinsky were of Polish parentage, so the Poles claim ownership of these Russian-bred artists.

— The Chinese choreographer Shen Wei (now based in New York) set his Rite to Fazil Say's recorded two-piano adaptation. "Orchestra is overwhelming theatrically," Shen Wei said about his choice. "The piano version lets you hear the music as a real composition." He bent his choreography to the relentlessly renewing life cycles that were intrinsic to the masterpiece seen at the Perelman as part of Philadelphia's 2004 Live Arts Festival.

— Saturated in carnality, five dancers of Israel's Emanuel Gat Dance performed their 2004 Rite at American Dance Festival in Durham, N. C. in 2005. Relentlessly maintaining a swing-like salsa in tight formation on a red Persian carpet, they laced their fingers through each other's hands and snaked arms around each other's necks while rapidly turning and changing places, making this the sexiest Rite in my book.

Nude but sterile

— France's Ballet Preljocaj, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2002, featured a nude "Chosen One" but was too sterile for me.

—I loved Montreal's Compagnie Marie Chouinard's Rite for its insectile primitivity when I first saw it in Scottsdale in 1993, but I found that element missing when the same company performed in Philadelphia recently.

— Pina Bausch's 1975 Rite"“ in German, Frühlingsopfer— at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the early '80s and through repeated viewings on DVD and in the Wim Wenders documentary, Pina— remains for me the only one that Nijinsky might have fallen in love with, as I did. Its primal brutality, springing up from tons of soil raked onto the stage, made it a monument of dance like no other.

As the man who chooses the sacrificial victim in the Wenders film, Andrey Berezin seems to exude blood from his eyes (well, some of that dirt could have gotten in them) and for sure, the steam of a snorting bull from his nostrils. Pina's Rite is the only one that deeply portrays ritual, in the solemnity of its repetitive ceremonial variations— in which all the participants are victims, driven as much by biology as by the prescribed traditions of their community. Most important, it was as if Stravinsky's and Bausch's visions had both re-emerged as one from that mulched stage, so integrated were the dance and the music.

Russian blood

Why so much contextualizing for a review of the Philadelphia Orchestra's Rite of Spring under Yannick Nézet-Séguin? Because there is so much to say about its history and what choreographers have learned (or not) from it and each other. But also, I want to explore for myself, and perhaps for you, how Yannick's Rite stacked up.

The Moscow-born, Montreal-bred circus artist, Anna Kichtchenko is an aerial tissu loop expert and contortionist. She walked out onto the stage and arranged herself inside the tissu loop, lying down, back to the audience.

With the first languid notes of the clarinet and woodwinds, the loop of luminous white fabric rose, looking like one of those blankets that storks carry babies in. Only instead of a baby emerging from it, an exquisitely ethereal young woman rotated inside, more like a glistening embryo squirming out of its cocoon. Over the heads of the first rows of the audience she climbed, dove, twisted and fell again and again until a strand of fabric caught her by the ankle or wrist or waist.

I've seen plenty of aerial dance, and too frequently it looks inert, static, posed. But Kichtchenko's Russian blood wed her fulgent maneuvers to the conductor's baton below, creating as much variety and rhythm as the music in the work's first unfurling section.

Roller-derby queen

After her daring aerial breathlessness, the five dancers who shared the narrow strip of stage for Dan Safer's choreography in the ever more driving next section had a tough act to follow.

The tall, head-shaven Hope Davis enters in a sapphire-blue, one-shoulder gown, statuesquely moving along the strip. She is soon joined by Jennie MaryTai Liu, Kate Moran, Ani Taj and Natalie Thomas, who scramble and tussle like schoolyard hooligans, bullying each other, choosing first one, then another victim.

Finally Taj chases Thomas like a roller-derby queen (indeed, all five wear kneepads under their cocktail gowns), elbows churning. Thomas, dressed in a man's tux— just to turn the gender tables a bit— returns from offstage, bloodied and dying to the crashing climax.

They gave it their all, but without a sense of ritual to fill the movement with meaning, I found it more exercising than engaging.

Still, I suppose there's no rite or wrong way to imagine this work. Its openness to interpretation is what makes it timeless. Just as we would never tire of spring, we'll never tire of Rites.

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read another review by Dan Coren, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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