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.
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?
The dancers are marvelous. In addition to those named, Stefano Rosato and Simon Williams give especially bold performances. Oddly, amid all this good dancing and smart craziness and why-not? inventiveness, the only profoundly stirring moment of Program B had little to do with the choreography. In between Mmm and I Do, some archival BBC footage was projected. Here before us in black-and-white, Igor Stravinsky conducts the opening of Sacre—a very little, gnome-like man, eyes darting, summoning up this huge, life-affirming musical experience. Reader, I wept.
Heddy Maalem’s Le Sacre du Printemps is much rawer and more passionate. Half French, half Algerian, born in Algiers and raised in France, Maalem came to dance through boxing and Japanese martial arts, and in 2004 was indirectly inspired to tackle Stravinsky’s score by a visit to Lagos, Nigeria, where devastating poverty, eroding traditions, and rampant Westernization butt together. The 14 dancers in his France-based company are all of African descent.
To a superb recording of Stravinsky’s music (Pierre Boulez leading the Cleveland Orchestra), the performers come together in a kind of contemporary ritual. The men wear colored trunks, the women trunks and bras. The stage is a white box. The most striking thing about Maalem’s choreography is the way he designs the group. The dancers—or clumps of them—often nest together, bellies pressed against one another’s bent-over backs. The men nuzzle up to the women; once, in pairs, the women dance wide-legged, while the each man keeps his head pressed against his partner’s thigh and groin. In Part II, the scene in the original Sacre in which the victim is chosen, people cluster around Marie Diedhiou and gently touch her body; then they lean in and, in one swift action, form a basket and lift her so she’s nesting on their arms.
The performers respond instantly to changes in the music—patiently forming lines, circles, and chains, then suddenly erupting into running, leaping, and violent head-shaking. But Maalem also offers an introduction and an interlude with Benoît Dervaux’s projected films of Lagos—lush scenery or urban congestion—set to augmented natural sounds. The dramatic timing of the piece is sometimes crude or confusing. Suddenly everyone onstage starts hurling imaginary rocks at one corner, then at us. And then that’s over, and they surround Diedhiou. There’s an implied mating (she and Hardo Papa Salif Ka), but Diedhiou is leader as well as sacrifice, and the lights black out before the final tremulous note of the music sounds. The real ordeal is left to spot-lit Dramane Diarra, alone on stage in front of a blurry, chopped-up film of a horse. Without stirring from his spot, he writhes and jerks his limbs and torso, increasing in speed until he’s almost spastic. The lights go out again. Now what? Oh, it’s over. Uncertain, but grinning, the vivid performers trail onto the stage and bow. Their roughness, their power, their commitment are endearing.
Compagnie Heddy Maalem performs as part of a season billed as “The French Collection.” Compagnie Maguy Marin plays at the Joyce from June 17 through 22 and Ballet Biarritz from June 24 through 28. You can also escape the hot city and catch Maalem’s Sacre at Jacob’s Pillow (June 25 through 29).