The Rite: Contemporary and Contemporaneous in Music and Dance

blossom-2013-logo-250wAs we celebrate the centennial year of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and the Diaghilev/Nijinsky ballet for which it was written, it is a leap too far to call these works contemporary. But, despite their age, they resonate today as exceedingly up-to-date because artists of many genres are still grappling with the revolution in artistic sensibility they unleashed. The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Tito Muñoz (the orchestra’s former Assistant Conductor, now Music Director of Ensemble LPR in New York), and the Joffrey Ballet explored the Rite itself along with other works of dance-making with contemporaneous music by John Adams, Morton Gould, and Aram Khachaturian at the Blossom Music Festival on August 17 and 18, 2013.

The Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky Le Sacre du Printemps   (photo credit: Herbert Migdoll)

The Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky Le Sacre du Printemps (photo credit: Herbert Migdoll)

As the highlight and conclusion of the evening, Joffrey presented their reconstruction of the original production of the Rite by choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and designer Nicholas Roerich. The recreation, accomplished through painstaking research by dance historians Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, was premiered in 1987, fulfilling the ardent dreams of founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino to resurrect this iconic treasure of modernism in music and dance. We have seen several dance productions of the Rite with alternate choreography, and of course we have heard Stravinsky’s music in isolation many times. It was tremendously instructive to witness the original combined work to gain a deeper understanding of its germinal power that still reverberates in contemporary art today.

From the opening bluesy bassoon call, we knew we were in for something special to hear the Rite unfold in the the hands of Muñoz and the Cleveland Orchestra. As morning broke on the Russian Steppes, the full flock of reeds joined, augmented by Blossom Park’s cricket and cicada population. Suddenly, the brass bolted in, bringing the mix to a wild cacophony and we got our first taste of the primitive, animalistic dancing the music of this piece, subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Acts,” was intended for.

Composer Igor Stravinsky (photo credit:

Composer Igor Stravinsky (photo credit:

Many have observed that, as groundbreaking as Stravinsky’s music for the Rite was, the choreography was even more challenging to the audience’s expectations. In fact, the dancing is more likely the cause of the opening night riot. It is the antithesis of the prevailing ballet aesthetic in 1913. By the time the Old Sage entered the fray towards the end of Part I, “The Adoration of the Earth,” the dance movements had reached full frenzy, driven by Stravinsky’s wild score.

Part II, “The Sacrifice” began in relative quiet, as the Old Sage drew an ever-enlarging circle with a magic stick. The pace of the music and movement quickened as the maidens danced the rite of selecting one of their number to be sacrificed. The Chosen One was forced to the center of the circle as the menfolk returned, a cadre of them in bearskins. Stravinsky’s music built again to a frenzy for the Chosen One’s crazed dance, part abject fear, part resignation and acceptance. Suddenly, loud brass blares foretold her doom. The Chosen One danced herself to death; the bearskins swept in and carried her off; the music came to a stunning and sudden end.

Composer John Adams (photo credit:

Composer John Adams (photo credit:

The first half of the program examined more recent instances of contemporary composition spurring the use of dance movement as an essential means of expressing the music. The most ambitious of these was Son of Chamber Symphony from Australian  choreographer Stanton Welch, using Johns Adams’ 2007 composition of the same name. When the Joffrey commissioned Welch to set a new dance to be premiered at the 2012 Jacob’s Pillow dance festival, he was immediately attracted to Adam’s score. To Welch, the music’s deconstruction/reconstruction aesthetic and jittery textures were “like looking at the inner workings of a clock.” Following Adams’ lead, Welch has spilled all the standard ballet vocabulary out onto the floor and reassembled the component gestures in jangly new ways that are at once both strange and strangely familiar. It was like a dance version of relentless modernists Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales.

From the opening bass clarinet run over a racket of percussion, Son of Chamber Music was all tense staccato lines with little sense of flow. The dancing too, in a clear break from classical ballet practice, emphasized the physical challenge of each individual movement, stringing them together in unexpected, un-smooth patterns. Helping to emphasize this celebration of physical process over fluid outcome, the costumes were designed to emphasize their construction, rather than to project some fashionable beauty. They looked as if they were worn inside-out. The highlight of this work came in the fast final movement. Six ballerinas danced a kaleidoscope of simultaneous, disjoint solos to Adams’ off-kilter fugue, bringing the affair to a satisfying close.

The program opened with Jerome Robbins’ light-hearted Interplay (1945) which he set to Morton Gould’s American Concertette (1943) for piano and orchestra. Gould’s music, which he described as using “popular idiomatic materials in a classic framework and fabric,” is remarkably upbeat and optimistic for a piece composed in the depths of World War II. Robbins’ choreography made excellent use of Gould’s sunny optimism to portray a series of playground games full of youthful joy and exuberance. The piano part, which drives and dominates the entire score, was played with great delight by Joela Jones, who holds the Rudolf Serkin Principal Keyboard Chair and is an expert on every imaginable keyboard instrument. The first half concluded with Adagio, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov to an excerpt from the ballet score Spartacus (1954), by Aram Khachituiran. If the excellently played music was a bit prosaic, the dancing was not. Victoria Jaiani and Temour Suluashvili performed a mesmerizing, lushly sensuous pas de deux. Jaiiani displayed all the flexibility of a snake as she slithered around the stout trunk and tree limbs of Suluashvili, bringing the crowd to a frenzied ovation.