Two Groups Tell Stravinsky What’s Up These Days

Would someone please declare a moratorium on new ballets to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Les Noces? Shiva, how about you? Jove? A few thunderbolts? Not fair, you say? Every choreographer should have the opportunity to see what deeply felt new twist he or she could attach to these magisterial scores? Sigh.

You can’t really blame those who take the risk. The two pieces of music were written to be danced to; their complex primal rhythms and Russian melodic adventures cry out for pounding feet. And then there’s the lure of borrowed resonance. Vaslav Nijinsky’s Sacre of 1913 caused a riot among spectators at its Ballets Russes premiere in Paris because of the music’s dissonance and the primitivism of the steps. The Noces that his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, created in 1923 (also for Diaghilev’s company) had the strength of modern dance and the blocky designs of Russian art, both ancient and contemporary. Anyone delving into those scores today riffs off the original production: Maybe it won’t be a virgin that gets sacrificed in this Rite; maybe no one will actually get married in this Noces. What about futuristic costumes, lots of sex, a host of Bridezillas? Maybe some mannequins to maul. And don’t forget dry ice.

I’m not denying there have been some powerful stagings of these two pieces of music (Pina Bausch’s 1975 version comes to mind) and some intriguing takes on them as well. But I repeat: sigh.

Compagine Heddy Maalem in Maalem’s Sacre du Printemps
Patrick Fabre
Compagine Heddy Maalem in Maalem’s Sacre du Printemps

Details

Michael Clark Company
Rose Theater
June 4 through 7

Compagnie Heddy Maalem
Joyce Theater
June 10 through 15

One major bonus for Michael Clark’s productions—part of Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series and its New Visions: Stravinsky Onstage programs—is that the music is live. Clark’s Rite of Spring, titled Mmm. . . is set to the two-piano version, and for his Noces, titled I Do, Jurjen Hempel conducts four pianists, four solo singers, and percussionists from St. Luke’s Orchestra plus, onstage, the Concert Chorale of New York. The sound is glorious.

Clark, the former enfant terrible of British contemporary dance and a onetime brilliant dancer himself, brings a kind of chill force to both scores, plus some witty-silly, out-of-the-blue touches. Mmm premiered in 1992 with costumes by artist Leigh Bowery. Clark’s mother was in it. This slightly altered version dates from 2006 (costumes are by Stevie Stewart and the choreographer). Clark, wearing a long black dress and a veiled hat and channeling his mum, throws himself on the ground face down, like the Sage in Nijinsky’s ballet, and stays there for a minute or two. The white, pot-bellied blob who kidnaps a dancer could be Bowery’s ghost. The women have red-painted fingernails and toenails to match their short red plastic skirts; some kind of tinsel makes their noses gleam. The men wear little caps like yarmulkes. For one solo, Melissa Hetherington wears a shiny purple unitard with parts cut out to reveal flesh, as she rolls and twists and arches like a cat in heat—the eroticism of the movement countered by her cool, deliberate performance. Later, four performers appear wearing black-and-white fabric toilets (the seats their collars, the lids their halos). Toward the end, everyone reappears in flowered shirts or dresses. Don’t ask me how Spring was induced to arrive, because Amy Hollingsworth hasn’t yet performed her long, slow, aerobically challenging solo.

The movements of these celebrants are very precise, with a kind of askew elegance. They spraddle their legs and circle their mobile hips and shoulders. Their arms often swing stiffly from their shoulders and their legs slash the air neatly. There’s something doll-like about them, despite their prowess. Although they enter the stage from both sides, they also appear when a row of wooden doors at the back swing open to reveal them in Charles Atlas’s stunning lighting. The doors are mirrored on the other side, so that sometimes the onstage images are splintered and duplicated.

Clark makes strong designs and eye-catching movement, but few moments match the amassing power of the music or give the impression of a society coming together for a ritual. Various of the fine performers gather here and there and then dissipate. The mall of life.

I Do (2007) is the finer piece, but it, too, pays little attention to the scenes (carefully listed in the program) that make up the composer’s scenario or alludes to the words being sung. True, the Bride in this arranged marriage is clearly identified: Tall Kate Coyne emerges from a huge, faceless wooden “matryushka” off to the side. Wearing high heels and a little white fur jacket over her dance togs, she’s escorted center-stage while the singer laments the cutting of her long hair. This kind of disconnect between text and dance predominates. No bridesmaids comfort her, but they do toss bouquets into the audience. The Groom (Andrea Santato) does pick up the Bride. And couples and trios leap about, arms linked, like merrymakers proceeding through the streets (although no one is merry in this town). In the end, the betrothed pair stand stiffly side by side, Coyne encased in a ruffled white egg of a dress, only her face showing. After emerging from a “matryushka,” she becomes one, and who knows how many little nesting dolls will emerge from her womb?

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