It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the premiere of “Rite of Spring” on May 29, 1913 changed everything. Nijinsky’s choreography had more notorious antecedents (his “Afternoon of a Faun,” which premiered exactly one year earlier, was one example), but his evocation of pagan Russia thumbed its nose at the conventions of balletic beauty and grace. The costumes, which revealed almost nothing of the mostly female cast, was as Michael Tilson Thomas points out in this instructive installment from his “Keeping Score” series were an affront to the sensibilities of the Parisian audience, and nothing like Stravinsky’s music with its pounding, irregular rhythms and deliberate ugliness, had ever been heard before.
Anyone willing to take on such an artistic monument must do so with an equal measure of reverence and boundary-smashing enterprise. To do any less would dishonor the original achievement.
Dafmark Dance Theater’s new choreography of “Rite” was, well, just right.
Choreographer Dafna Rathouse Baier gave the proper measure of hommage and provocation with choreography that was evocative but never self-conscious. Her subtitle was “Stravinsky & Coco Chanel Breaking Boundaries,” and the pairing of the two revolutionaries, while disjunctive on the surface, made historical sense (Chanel was at the 1912 premiere and was a backer of the revival a decade later. She and Stravinsky were almost certainly lovers).
It also made dramatic and aesthetic sense. The most consequential moment of the ballet came not in the final scene, when in Stravinsky’s original scenario a young woman is sacrificed, but against the eerie, undulant music that opens the second part of the ballet.
Baier placed her dancers in a line far downstage spelling out something (I forgot to ask what) in American Sign Language. The effect was of a message in a forgotten language — appropriate considering the original setting of the work in prehistoric Russia.
The women, dressed in slips and wearing necklaces and black pumps, one by one walked in appropriately hip-swinging fashion down an imaginary runway, and with a go-to-hell facial expression, each shed an accessory. In the same scene, they then each took off one shoe and limped in a circle dance that recalled Nijinsky’s original choreography (or, at least, Robert Joffrey’s reconstruction of the original, now lost). It was a pitch-perfect moment of artistic ingenuity and social comment. The feminist message, while not vulgarly overplayed was nonetheless unmistakable.
And about that ingenuity. A small, resource-poor company such as Dafmark cannot afford elaborate sets and wardrobe, so Marsha Cisek’s costumes and the chairs on which the dances stretched in the opening scene — a literal portrayal of Stravinsky’s “Awakening” — and Scott McGrath’s lighting deftly carried the load.
Baier also husbanded the resources of her dancers in this demanding score, cannily scattering solos (most notably for Leslie Loop and guest Scott Heinrich) and duets with ensemble numbers that gave the audience as much of a break in this gripping music (what a lot of content in a little over a half-hour!) as she provided the dancers.
It was a a very consequential evening of music and dance that was never strident (except when Stravinsky intended it to be) or exhausting. The dancers (and perhaps Baier herself) may curse me for saying this but the production deserves a revival, and soon. The work’s centenary is only two years and 28 days away.