Juilliard Revives Nijinska’s Les Noces; the Irish Modern Dance Theatre Brings Fall and Recover to La MaMa

Two groups build communities with their bodies

During the first third of the 20th-century, European art was awash in revolutionary movements. By 1923, dada, with its witty outrages, was winding down; Italian Futurism was being co-opted by Fascism; Russian Futurism and Constructivism were still flourishing; and at Germany’s Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer—sculptor, designer, and choreographer—had created his Triadic Ballet (1922).

It was in 1923 that Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the great dancer, made her masterwork, Les Noces, for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a revival of which opened the Juilliard Dance Division’s spring concerts. While the fantastic costumes and masks involved in Schlemmer’s work turned dancers’ bodies into sculptural objects, Nijinska, who was friends with the Constructivist artist Aleksanda Exter, built architectural structures with slender, dancerly physiques. The choreographer followed the scenario of the cantata written several years earlier by Igor Stravinsky for four solo voices, a chorus, four pianos, and percussion. The text tells of an arranged marriage among Russian peasants.

Lawrence Rhodes, artistic director of the Dance Division, believes that being intimately involved with classics of the repertory is as much a part of his students’ education as having choreographers create new works for them. Performing Les Noces requires a kind of compressed power and an almost fanatical attention to clarity. In the lustier celebrations, the men and women look like peasants carved in a wooden frieze, their legs and arms angled just so.

Juilliard Dance in the final tableau of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces
Rosalie O'Connor
Juilliard Dance in the final tableau of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces
John Scott’s Fall and Recover
Chris Nash
John Scott’s Fall and Recover

Details

Juilliard Dances Repertory
Peter J. Sharp Theater
March 23 through 27
Irish Modern Dance Theatre: Fall and Recover Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa
March 25 through April 9

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In the First Tableau: Benediction of the Bride, the bride’s attendants—identically clad in white blouses, brown apron-dresses, white head scarves, white leggings bound in brown ribbons, and brown pointe shoes that they use like stilettos—line up shoulder-to-shoulder on either side of her. The tallest stands nearest to her and the smallest at the ends, so that the tall bride (Casia Vengoechea) forms the peak of this mountain. At another point, the women crouch down to varying degrees and build a hill with their heads; their faces, turned to the audience, make you think ancient icons. The bride leans her elbows on this structure, as if gazing on the future outside her bedroom window. In the Second Tableau: Benediction of the Bridegroom, the friends of the groom (Gentry George) walk across the stage in a line facing front, holding shoulders, each man laying his right cheek on his arm.

There are many such sculptural effects in the ballet. They emphasize the ritualistic customs of a society in which the about to-be-married pair are pawns, chosen for the family ties they will bind. Except for an extremely brief lament by the bride’s mother, the people onstage betray no emotions. It is for us to feel what they aren’t allowed to show. The Juilliard dancers have been scrupulously rehearsed in the vigor of a style that emphasizes the primacy of design. They rarely fumble the tiny adjustments it takes to get into formations without apparent preparation. The only regrettable thing is that, with all the gifted musicians enrolled in Juilliard, the score couldn’t be performed live, despite Rhodes’s efforts (no resident chorus and no room in the pit for singers, four pianos, and 10 percussionists). With that tremendous sound behind them, the dancers would have looked even better than they did, and the combination would have been overwhelming.

Whether or not Rhodes intended to build a program that emphasized the architecture of dance in different ways, that is what he gave us. It was extremely interesting to see Eliot Feld’s 1986 Skara Brae and Mark Morris’s 1993 Grand Duo following Les Noces. Skara Brae came early in Feld’s fascination with repetition (which had perhaps been spurred by Steve Reich’s music). In this dance, however, repetition enhances the feeling of ritual, as does Allen Lee Hughes’s often chill lighting (recreated by Patrice Thomas and Nicole Pearce). Costumed by Willa Kim, the 19 dancers—both men and women—wear red headbands; gray tights and leotards, with totemic designs on them here and there; soft slippers; and leg warmers with bindings like those of the Noces celebrants.

The recorded music of traditional Irish, Scottish, and Breton tunes is sorrowful at times, even when foot-tappingly rhythmic. Although there’s no story to this ballet, a program note provides a key to its mood. Skara Brae is the name of a very small Neolithic settlement in the Orkney Isles that its occupants mysteriously abandoned around 5,000 years ago, leaving everything behind.

The feeling of the steps is earthy, although the dancers often burst into big leaps. The women begin laying out a repertory of steps and gestures that involves bent positions with profiled heads. Over and over they cross their arms or lay one elbow on top of the other and hold their arms up like a torch as they dance. They build zig-zag designs on the stage. When the men enter, the women sit with their legs spread wide and form an avenue along which the men leap, knees bent, bodies bent forward.

In an extremely curious and compelling duet, a man (Alexander Hille) enters slightly hunched, with a woman sitting on his upper back; her own spine rests against his neck, and she’s curled into a bundle. The woman (McKenna Birmingham in the cast I saw) might be a load of firewood he’s slogging along with, judging by the way he swings her down and up again to re-settle her on his back. Everything the two do together in the way of complicated lifts suggests that she is his burden but also a necessary part of him.

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