A LEGEND AND RIGHTLY SO
By: Hal de Becker
The Rite of Spring ballet has becomealegend not only because of its exotic title or the riot it created at its 1913 Paris premier or because the music was used with the erupting volcanoes and stampeding dinosaurs’ in the 1940 Disney masterpiece Fantasia.
Its fame rests more upon the momentous and revolutionary score by Igor Stravinsky which profoundly influenced all subsequent 20th century music and the radical departure from classical ballet of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography which extended the creative vistas for later choreographers.
Thanks to the written score the music still exists, but the original choreography which had only seven performances does not. Reconstructions of it have had to depend solely upon the recollections of those who saw or danced it in 1913.
New choreographies to the music also face challenges. Because of the legendary stature of the work any such approach has to overcome biases and pre-conceived notions.
At Ham Hall recently, UNLV teacher-choreographer, Cathy Allen and dance department chair Louis Kavouras, together with 13 talented female dance-majors, overcame all challenges with an intriguing new production of the ballet.
According to the program notes, the dancers represented travelers searching for “…a new beginning, a fresh start or a new rite of spring.” Many of them carried suitcases and wore long swirling overcoats for their journey.
The characters projected an aura of disillusionment. They held small illuminated flowers which I took to be their unfulfilled dreams. At one point, a girl ran to the edge of the stage and gazed into the orchestra pit as though looking down at the tracks of a subway station. What was she thinking of doing at that moment?
At the end, a stranger placed a suitcase at center stage and around it the other cases were stacked as if their owners were giving up all they possessed including themselves.
Like the birth of a child, a girl emerged from the new suitcase. She gathered up all the abandoned flowers, shut them inside the case and then, with her own glowing flowers in hand, awaited the fresh start of a new spring.
The choreographers had no shortage of ideas so I assume there was a special significance for the repetition of certain gestures and steps such as cartwheels (lost youth and innocence?) and bent-legged arabesques better known as ‘attitudes’ (broken hearts?).
The ensemble’s exciting moves and patterns to the orchestra’s wildly whirling passages consistently provided a good visual realization of the music as did frequently their slow stretched elongations in the subdued sections.
On opening night the playing of the UNLV Symphony Orchestra under the inspired baton of Taras Krysa was impeccable. ‘Rite’ is not the sort of composition one expects a student orchestra to undertake let alone perform at such a high level of excellence.
It’s worth noting that in 1913 the music’s dissonances and syncopated rhythms were considered unplayable by some members of that Paris orchestra.
“Afternoon of a Faune” was Nijinski’s first choreographic undertaking and despite its brevity (about 10 minutes) created a scandal at its 1912 premier in Paris for what was considered offensive eroticism: randy Faune unsuccessfully pursues pretty nymph and then unabashedly satisfies his erotic impulses lying face down on a scarf she’s left behind.
Although ‘Faune’ may have helped pave the way for the freedom to depict sex in dance,it consists mostly of posing and walking with parallel feet, hands extended open and flat and shoulders and torso twisted forwards resembling figures in Egyptian wall decorations.
The success of the dance depends exclusively upon the portrayal of the Faune. The role requires a charisma that exudes animalistic sensuality, fully stretched poses, tension and a sense of the exotic in body and movement. Neither of the two dancers in UNLV’s performances sufficiently displayed any of those qualities.
The seven nymphs went through their steps and poses smoothly particularly on the second night. Shannon Redfield as the Lead Nymph had a strong presence.
It was reconstructed from Nijinsky’s own notes by Ann Hutchinson, a leading authority on Labonotation, a written system which enables choreography to be read much like the notes of a musical score.
Today, ‘Faune’ is more a curiosity to be enjoyed and studied for its historical significance than a compelling dance work. Nevertheless, its history together with Debussy’s lush score and Leon Bakst’s dynamic costumes and backdrop assure it a permanent place in the ballet galaxy.
“Mother Goose Suite” to Ravel’s music of the same namewas a good center piece to the two other works on the program. The choreography by Dolly Kelepecz and Don Bellamy was interesting and refreshingly unpretentious and would have been even more enjoyable if performed to a less somnolent musical composition.
The seven ladies, all on pointe, performed well. Outstanding were Nao Hayakawa and Kailiegh Oneil. Justin Velarde and Jesus Nanci executed difficult passages of steps in surprisingly perfect unison and Avree Walker added drama with his cat-like strength and grace.
UNLV’s dance and music departments can take pride in having presented such a distinguished program.