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Mariinsky Ballet's 'Rite of Spring'

Everyone knows about the debacle caused by The Rite of Spring. In spite of having caused a riot, the score quickly became not only accepted but beloved, with a section even used by Walt Disney in Fantasia less than thirty years after the controversial Paris premiere. The uproar was caused not only by the music, which was hard for the musicians to understand and reportedly not played very well, but by the daring choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky. Although we have the score, we do not have the choreography, which was performed as Nijinsky created it for fewer than ten performances and then lost. What we do have is a scholarly reconstruction, by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, premiered by the Joffrey Ballet back in 1987. True, this version is far from perfect: dance historian Jennifer Homans, in her book Apollo's Angels, dismisses it as "American postmodern dance masquerading as a seminal modernist work." Even so, the Mariinsky Ballet leads off its current program at the Kennedy Center Opera House, seen on Tuesday night, with it.

Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose, 1911
While the reconstruction may be a "travesty," as Homans put it, "a radical and shocking dance rendered tame and kitschy, a souvenir from an exotic past," it is the closest we are going to get to one of the most significant artistic achievements of the 20th century. (The choreography for Debussy's Jeux is also on my wishlist.) The experience of watching it live, with the music performed by an expanded Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, brought home the raw power of the work -- dance, music, artistic designs -- in a way that was not clear to me before. The music, conducted here by Gavriel Heine, was not always in top form and neither was the dancing, but when you see the movements -- or, at least, Hodson and Archer's most educated guess at the movements -- line up with the music, it makes sense in a way it did not before. A few striking moments will suffice as explanation. The stillness and then ecstatic writhing of the tribesmen incited by the music that accompanies the Cortège du Sage is followed by the agonized lowering of the Sage's body to the ground as he kisses the earth (L'Adoration de la Terre). The night vigil of the Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes reveals the selection of the Chosen One, standing in the center as if planted in the ground, danced here in the final scenes with crazed agitation, all flying braids and anguished shudders, by Daria Pavlenko.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Mariinsky Ballet’s lush, bright and visually spectacular ‘Rite of Spring’ (Washington Post, January 29)

---, Mariinsky Ballet’s ‘Rite of Spring’: Ode to the human savage, still untamed (Washington Post, January 23)

Alastair Macaulay, Tweaking an Illustrious Tradition to Incorporate Western Notions (New York Times, January 26)

---, An Age-Old Romantic Introduction, With Revitalizing Touches (New York Times, January 19)

Gia Kourlas, Young Performers Spreading Their Wings (New York Times, January 23)
It was hard to imagine anything following such a performance, but the Mariinsky pulled some surprises out of their bag of tricks, with a middle act of two short but celebrated Michel Fokine choreographies. The first, Le spectre de la rose, was created by Vaslav Nijinsky, as the spirit of a rose brought home by a young woman returning from her first ball, made memorable by the bepetaled dancer's triumphant entrance and exit (costumes designed by Léon Bakst), both made by leaps through large windows. Vladimir Shklyarov, last seen in the Mariinsky Romeo and Juliet, was androgynous in the title role, both strong and delicate as, unseen but smelled and remembered by the girl, he wafted the lovely Kristina Shapran around the stage, to Berlioz's orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber's Invitation to the Dance. This paired elegantly with Fokine's solo choreography The Swan, set to Saint-Saëns's Le Cygne, with Ulyana Lopatkina, trembling en pointe and with undulating, graceful arms, taking the role created by Anna Pavlova.

The final act was given over to Paquita Grand Pas, a lengthy divertissement by Marius Petipa inserted into Paquita. Set to largely undistinguished music by Ludwig Minkus, it ran the risk of anticlimax, and indeed many empty seats were left after second intermission. For the energetic Pas de Trois, the variation of Kristina Shapran (a dancer to watch), and the lovely return of Ulyana Lopatkina, it was worth the wait.

This program repeats all week at the Kennedy Center Opera House, through February 1, but with different casts.

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