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Flash Essay, 6-27: Rites of Artistic Identity
Of Harbingers and Abundance: The Mythic Appeal of "Le Sacre du Printemps"

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2008 Marisa C. Hayes

CHALON-SUR-SAONE (Saone-et-Loire), France -- Most are aware of the infamous episode in dance history when riots broke out at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris at the premiere of Nijinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, but surprisingly few dance writers or scholars have explored the ballet's undeniable appeal as a work that continues to be reshaped and regenerated on the global stage. As such, the ballet has become something of a two-way mirror, intimately reflecting the identities of the scores of dance-makers who have reinterpreted it. I pondered this recently as I witnessed the arrival of Marie Chouinard's company in France with her 50-minute "Le Sacre du Printemps" in tow. Chouinard created her version back in 1994, and 14 years later the piece continues to headline not only regional theaters (I caught the March 28 performance at Espace des Arts here in Burgundy), but celebrated venues for contemporary dance such as Paris's Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. While Chouinard's choreography looks less innovative these days, there's something more central to the heart of any "Sacre" (as it's affectionately called), not just hers, that warrants one reprise after another.

There's certainly no shortage of "Sacre" performances to sample. Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer's ambitious reconstruction of Nijinsky's original production remains active in the Joffrey Ballet's repertoire, while versions by Pina Bausch, Angelin Preljocaj, Mats Ek, Heddy Maalem, Glen Tetley and Maurice Bejart are seen with some regularity. Other eminent choreographers who have tackled Stravinsky's infamous score through the years include Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, Leonide Massine, Lester Horton, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Molissa Fenley and Paul Taylor. (For a detailed review of Alonzo King's production, please see Aimee Ts'ao's review for the DI here.) I could name more, but suffice it to say that "Le Sacre du Printemps" has inspired enough variations on a theme to fill at least one textbook. With such an impressive roster, the ballet has become something of a calling card in the dance world. The 1913 premiere, from a present-day point of view, easily symbolized the beginning of the modern era. Nijinsky's choreography, despite its stylization, still appears strikingly fresh today in the Hodson-Archer reconstruction. It's no wonder contemporary dancemakers past and present feel both indebted and profoundly linked to "Le Sacre du Printemps." It's possible that choreographers attempt to rework the ballet in order to pay homage to the original and at the same time establish a new order that departs from previous versions, echoing the ballet's spring motifs of sacrifice and rebirth.

More likely, however, the compelling themes central to "Le Sacre du Printemps" inspire every generation of choreographers because they touch upon something so vital and timeless. "Sacre" speaks to the heart of dance itself: the body as source. Between the body's beginning and end lie questions of gender, sexuality and reproduction, all inseparable aspects of the corporeal canon. In whatever form they take, addressing these fundamental subjects has a wide appeal to a choreographer because they originate from the artist's own instrument of expression. As a result, this succession of intimate rites has proven to be a powerful vehicle for pushing the personal ideology of the individual dancemaker.

In Bausch's version, women represent self-sacrifice, and the Chosen One is no longer portrayed as a heroine, but as a victim of social violence. Glen Tetley replaced the chosen female with a young boy, a Christ figure whose climax ends in resurrection. Molissa Fenley's solo performance heightens the duality of the ballet (birth/death, male/female, Winter/Spring) through the embodiment of a single dancer acting as both the selector and the chosen one. Bejart segregated the sexes into two acts, with the first featuring a male ensemble, replaced in the latter half of the ballet by an all female cast. These large unified groups act as a prelude to the erotic unison that finalizes the rite with the dance of an intertwined male/female couple. In keeping with Bejart's quasi-philosophical approach, this sexual act is seen as the ultimate sacrifice. John Neumeier takes on mass copulation in his staging, which ends in total chaos. The sacrificial act, instead of reinstating order and a return to the cyclical nature of the seasons, erupts into massive violence and a breakdown of society. Neumeier's vision of human annihilation is purely physical based on primal, territorial behavior, removing the ballet from its cultic realm of ideas as featured in Nijinsky's original production. In contrast, Chouinard represents "Le Sacre du Printemps" without cause and result. She explores all life forms simultaneously, asserting that the performance is an analysis of the first moment when life appears. Her version features seven androgynous dancers shown in various states of being (plant, animal, human), in a rather naive effort to display the interconnectivity of all life forms. In direct response to the interwoven histories of the body, dance, and "Le Sacre du Printemps" itself, Jereome Bel uses the ballet to reduce and demonstrate aspects of the art of dance. In his version, four nude performers evoke principles of the body, space, light and music. The vast diversity of individual symbolism found in numerous interpretations of "Sacre," in addition to varying degrees of departure from the original plot, nevertheless consistently holds itself within the parameters of the body, with its dual beginning/end as the axis.

When some early 20th-century critics suggested that Stravinsky's score for "Le Sacre du Printemps" was a harbinger, they couldn't have realized how prophetic the statement truly was. With his striking rhythms, Stravinsky was an alchemist of sound, heralding hundreds of dancers to visually reinterpret his work without inspiring a departure from the music. Never has a contemporary ballet been reinvented and explored so many times while keeping its original composition intact. Only a small minority has ever sought to tinker with the original. Marie Chouinard, for example, adds an opening sound-scape, but continues to rely on Stravinsky's music at the heart of her "Sacre." The score and the cyclical themes it evokes have become the ballet's unifying features. We can't possibly view every version of "Le Sacre du Printemps" -- indeed some have been lost, others remain obscure -- but these fundamental links are key in understanding the ballet's appeal for both choreographers and audiences. It would be impossible for so many successive versions of "Sacre" to proliferate at such a dizzying rate without the interest and support that the ballet garners. Its mythic beginning probably evokes, at least on some level with the dance-goers aware of it, a sense of awe and wonder; but the familiar, climactic music is what viewers anticipate.

Attending "Le Sacre du Printemps" performances has become a modern-day ritual in itself. Almost as if emulating the cyclical nature of the ballet, audiences return to hear the familiar strains of the score and look for signs of sacrifice and rebirth in each new production. Chiefly staged in developed countries where a dependence on the seasons as they naturally occur is a thing of the past, the ballet's ability to regenerate itself in multiple theaters is appealing -- most often unconsciously -- in the search for meaningful, recurring ways to mark the passage of time. Recently when I discussed "Sacre" and its various incarnations with a dance colleague, we cheerfully exclaimed each time the two of us had seen the same production. It was if we were recalling a certain holiday or birthday, creating a collective experience of sorts. Identifying the "Sacre" performances we had seen also created a contextual time-line that helped us place each version in perspective. Perhaps "Le Sacre du Printemps" doesn't hold that kind of significance for everyone, but the next time you see a production of the ballet, ask the people seated next to you if they've seen other versions. More likely than not, you'll find some common ground in the encounter. Of course this could be said for the experience of theater in general. Music fans, balletomanes, and other art lovers often find that regular attendance at the theater fulfills a social function as well as its inherent cultural interest. I'm not referring to the "who saw whom at the opera" syndrome that prevails in 19th-century literature, but rather, art as a meeting place, as a stimulator in the way that many members of mainstream society relate to one another through their common experience of watching the same televised programs. In this way, performances are an event, taking on ceremonial aspects. The classics in particular inspire discussion and debate on various interpretations, styles, and other elements simply because we've seen them so many times that we have the experience to make comparisons and note what differentiates them from one another. "Le Sacre du Printemps" is unique because the same ritual is repeated and recreated each time in response to an individual choreographer's own concerns and interests -- most often featuring socio-political overtones -- while maintaining familiar structural elements (musical score and themes). Each version is an entirely new work of art, but a recurring event in its own framework. What's more, these interpretations contain a sense of urgency because their constant updating often speaks to the need to respond to the present moment. In the now, "Le Sacre du Printemps" possesses immediacy, and as each performance takes its place chronologically in a long line of predecessors, it becomes a historical marker on the 95-year continuum of the ballet's existence. For the time being, nothing in contemporary dance can rival its prevalence. It would take a paradigm shift followed by at least 100 years of creative activity to come close.

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