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Flash Review, 12-12: Preljocaj's 'Rite'
The Hazards of Art by Commission

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- For years, presenters have been urging the leading French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj to tackle "Le Sacre du Printemps(Rite of Spring)," the Igor Stravinsky music first made into an infamous ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky. Preljocaj, as humble in his personal manner as he is daring in his subject matter, resisted -- until he got an offer he couldn't refuse from the respected musician and conductor Daniel Barenboim, director of the Berlin Staatsopera. Once he committed to the project, presenter money poured in from all over the world, including the National Endowment for the Arts. The result, which received its Paris premiere at the Theatre de la Ville-Sarah Bernhardt last night after premiering in Berlin this spring, is certainly no failure. But in Preljocaj's admirable approach -- except for modern dancey costumes, he stuck to the original story of a primitive society and its virgin sacrifice, rather than spinning it off radically -- the only real new revelation in this production by Ballet Preljocaj is that calls from presenters can't take the place of calls from the Muse.

Most of you know the history of this monumental 20th century work, but for those who don't: At the 1913 premiere, fist-fights broke out in the audience at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. To tell the story of a primitive people, in a plot hinging on a sacrifice of "the chosen one," Nijinsky -- influenced by Eurythmics -- devised a jerkey movement whose most sacreligious element was the turned in feet of the dancers. As John Percival writes in "The World of Diaghilev":

"The dancers with their toes turned in, their heads leaning sideways to be propped up by one arm, itself supported on the other fist, made an unusual site....The ballet was received at its first performance with shouts of derision and whistles, making it difficult for the dancers to hear the music."

Even if his contemporary Michel Fokine may have actually done more to push ballet into the 20th century informed by a modern sensibility, for shock value Nijinsky's "Rite" was unparalleled.

While no one in dance today occupies a place comparable to Nijinsky, in France Angelin Preljocaj might be said to occupy the highest niche which was once occupied by Nijinsky. By virtue of both funding from the French government and bookings from American presenters (with U.S. tax dollars), he is now, one might say, the officially approved radical French choreographer. This bourgeoisie acceptability has created the requisite backlash in the current underground French dance scene, where it's common for young dancers and choreographers to snear or shrug at the mention of his name.

I don't think all of Preljocaj's creations succeed, particularly his entry in last Spring's France Moves festival in NYC. But, I think he's an honest choreographer with unquestioned integrity. Where he has failures or near misses, they are noble ones, and I think we need to permit the artists we love to break from the mold we love, even if it's to go in directions that make us cringe. And I think his integrity saves him. Is it a sacrilege to cut up the score of Prokoviev's "Romeo & Juliet," as Preljocaj did for his production? Probably. But if the re-cast result is a "Romeo & Juliet" which addresses -- and helps us better understand -- our Bosnias, can we condone the changes to the score? Probably.

But in his "Romeo & Juliet," Preljocaj, whose parents are from Albania, found a personal story to tell. Ditto in "Annonciation," (in my reading) a very personal tale of two women, one a teacher, one a sort of virgin, which is transforming because of the way the two women affect and change each other. I don't know exactly what the story was, but I know it was one that moved the choreographer and it moved me.

Preljocaj's "Sacre du Printemps" doesn't resonate in quite this way. Here, unlike his R&J, the modernization goes only so far as the employment of modern dance gestures, not the building of a new contemporary narrative. And those gestures -- the tossings of women by men, hitting of women by men, humping of women by men, the weaving of one under the other, the men nonchalantly watching in their bright pastel button-down shirts as the women slide their underwear to their ankles, then toss it off, then repeat this motion several times in the first section -- while they might work for a more intimate story, come off as mundane when trying to express music of such bombast.

As they watch, the men are reclining on pods of turf which later are combined into what is supposed to be the sacrificial ground for Nadine Comminges's Chosen One, but which has a striking resemblance to a golf sandpit. Scaling that sandpit naked as she tries to escape, only to be tossed back by the others, Nadine Comminges comes awfully close to lifting this "Rite" to an epic scale; waifish with a shock of brown-red hair, an expression of openness to the world, Comminges projects the same vulnerability and yet tireless spirit which created empathy for her Juliet. But other passages fall woefully short -- indeed are almost the opposite in their tempo from the epochal sweep of the music, as when the women, watching the men dance from the pods, smile in light amusement.

Nijinsky doesn't own "Rite of Spring," and so other choreographers have a right to try their hands at it. And it would be unfair to ask them to create a vocabulary for the ballet which shocks on the level of the original. BUT, I think without something original -- physically -- to add to it, they can only disappoint. Preljocaj's strength, I think, is not so much in the originality of his movement but in his personal investment in all his dance stories. All his ballets -- even the one I didn't care off -- play as if the choreographer is grabbing you by the shoulders, shaking you, and saying, "You must listen to my story." The choreography is simply a channel for his stories, and for the emotions they produce in both the performers and us. In approaching "Le Sacre du Printemps," Preljocaj has tried to apply his choreography to someone else's message. The result certainly matches the music, but I don't know that it reveals anything new in the story. Writers or choreographers, our stories need to come from within. Or, at least, if we're telling someone else's story, there needs to be something in it to which we can apply our personal vision. Preljocaj has certainly created choreography that matches the music, but I don't know that he has found anything in the music that speaks to him, and thus created anything that speaks to us a story we haven't already heard from this music and the original ballet.

Once can't really fault the presenters for wanting to coax Preljocaj into trying his hand at "Rite of Spring." On its face, it seems like a natural match. Indeed a dream match. And I must admit that watching a new dance to this music, I thought to myself, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to see what Mark Dendy and Larry Keigwin could do with this music? Maybe I'll write Mark and suggest it!"

But the result here -- unsurprising movement from one of our most wrenching and chilling choreographers -- reminds me that presenters, like journalists, aren't artists, and should resist the temptation to tell artists where to put their paintbrushes. They are, ideally, tasteful arbiters of talent, and maybe it should be enough that they simply say, either, "We like you as an artist. Here's some money. Go create something," or, "Let me see your latest creation, and if I like it, we'll present it."

Of course, in the case of Preljocaj, they might find themselves saddled with the musically assaulting and physically repetitive "Helikopter," which opened last night's program. It's exactly what it sounds like -- dance to music on the theme of a helicopter -- and it was rather dumb, musically speaking, to pair this with "Rite of Spring." Dissonance may not be melodious, but it has its harmony; it may not always be "pleasing" to the ear, but it stimulates. "Helikopter" composer Karlheinz Stockhausen doesn't seem to understand this, a fact of which this piece's being followed by the Stravinsky reminded us of. What he gave us was just noise, and, while it might be an interesting laboratory idea to see how many movements you can come up with that mimic the helicopter, after a few whirlings and twirlings I started yawning.

Ballet Preljocaj's program of "Helikopter" and "Le Sacre du Printemps" is performed again tonight through Saturday and next Tuesday through Saturday, at the Theatre de la Ville-Sarah Bernhardt.

P.S. If presenters really want to bring "Rite of Spring" to their audiences, perhaps they could consider booking the Joffrey Ballet, which has a stunning production of the Millicent Hodson-Kenneth Archer re-construction of the Nijinsky original. Do we really need to be paying beaucoup U.S. tax dollars to see this work from trendy French choreographers, when a perpetually financially -struggling American treasure, the Joffrey, is mounting the original? (Just asking!)

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