Friday, March 01, 2013

In Crisis

On Tuesday evening, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I saw Joffrey Ballet dance Millicent Hodson’s painstaking reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring”.

Premiered by Ballets Russes in 1913, “The Rite Of Spring” was to receive only ten performances, six in Paris and four in London—after which the ballet disappeared, seemingly forever, first a victim of Nijinsky’s deteriorating relationship with impresario Serge Diaghilev and then a victim of war. When Ballets Russes attempted to revive “The Rite Of Spring” in 1921, it was discovered that no one remembered Nijinsky’s 1913 choreography. The result: new choreography by Leonide Massine was commissioned, the original having been deemed “unrecoverable”.

Hodson’s reconstruction first appeared in 1987. The reconstruction is based upon the original prompt books (bearing no relationship to today’s dance notation), sketches and photographs from 1913, and interviews with surviving Ballets Russes dancers, most prominently Marie Rambert. Most dance experts admire the Hodson reconstruction, and consider it the best realization we shall ever have of Nijinsky’s greatest creation.

Nicholas Roerich’s original stage and costume drawings survive, so recreating the ballet’s design was the easiest part of Hodson’s project. The stage designs themselves are unremarkable—Roerich was more design historian than artist—but the costume designs are sensational, based directly upon ancient sources chronicling pagan Russian customs and traditions. To Americans, the costumes bear an uncanny resemblance to American Indian dress, lending credence to the theory that American Indian culture originated in Northwest Asia.

Nijinsky’s ballet is more than historic artifact; it is a timeless work of art, fully worthy of revival. Part I (“The Adoration Of The Earth”) is slow-moving and insufficiently atmospheric, but Part II (“The Sacrifice”) is powerful if not thunderous, and grips an audience’s attention from first to last.

Nijinsky’s choreography dispensed with Classical ballet vocabulary. The choreography is turned-in as opposed to turned-out, upper-body carriage is irrelevant, and technique is gravity-centered as opposed to gravity-defying—all of which has enabled some to argue that Nijinsky was the true originator of modern dance.

I find such a claim absurd. In creating “The Rite Of Spring”, Nijinsky was not creating a new art form—he was merely crafting a one-act story ballet typical of the period, albeit one devoted to primitive subject matter. There is little dance vocabulary that appears in “The Rite Of Spring” that was not already in use in Mikhail Fokine’s “Firebird” and “Petrouchka”.

Given the importance of the original “Rite Of Spring”, it is odd that only two companies have mounted the Hodson reconstruction: the Joffrey and the Mariinsky Ballet. I would think the Hodson reconstruction ideal for the repertories of American Ballet Theatre, The Royal Danish Ballet and The Paris Opera Ballet—and I would think that the ballet would be in constant demand by audiences everywhere.

Nonetheless, most ballet companies, American and European, have ignored the Hodson reconstruction—and both the Joffrey and the Mariinsky seldom remount their productions, making audiences wait years between revivals. Until Tuesday night, I had never had an opportunity to see the Nijinsky original (my parents had seen the Hodson reconstruction, danced by the Joffrey, a year or two after its unveiling). I wonder whether I shall ever have a chance to see it a second time.

The Joffrey performance was perfectly acceptable—“The Rite Of Spring” does not, by current dance standards, demand virtuosity—but I would love to see the Mariinsky in the ballet. Mariinsky dancers would be able to bring a depth of expression to “The Rite Of Spring” light years beyond what the Joffrey dancers were able to muster.

In the pit was a local student ensemble, the University Of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.


Preceding “The Rite Of Spring” were two other ballets.

First was a 2012 ballet specifically created for the Joffrey by Australian Stanton Welch, Artistic Director of Houston Ballet. Welch’s was a schlock ballet, set to a schlock score by John Adams, and the Minneapolis audience ate it up. It is hard to avoid schlock ballets these days (just as it is hard to avoid ballets set to music of Adams)—and the Joffrey, always the Western Hemisphere’s leading purveyor of schlock ballets, held true to form by offering the Welch.

Next was the ubiquitous “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, from 1987, by William Forsythe, whose “non-ballet” ballets I have never admired. It is hard to avoid Forsythe’s work these days, too.

The art of ballet has been in crisis since April 30, 1983, the date of George Balanchine’s death. For the last thirty years, choreographers have been operating in three self-limiting and self-defeating genres: (1) the neo-Balanchine ballet; (2) the schlock ballet; and (3) the “post-modern” ballet, in which Classicism is mocked. Until a great figure arises and reinvents the art form, nothing will change: the art of ballet will remain in the decadent state in which it now finds itself, and the audience for dance will continue to dwindle.

The Joffrey is not in good shape. Among regional companies, Houston, San Francisco, Miami and Boston can dance rings around the Joffrey. The two giant New York companies operate at levels countless leagues above the Joffrey’s.

The Joffrey has a very ragtag—and startlingly unattractive—group of dancers. The dancers are ill-trained and ill-disciplined, and would be near-laughable in anything requiring rigorous Classicism (which—wisely—the company has always avoided).

Were it not for the Joffrey’s periodic exhumation of important historic works, the company would be little more than a bad joke—and in need of permanent retirement.

Also in need of retirement are the stringers used to cover dance by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

More provincial coverage of dance cannot be found elsewhere.


  1. I agree that Part II of the Hodson reconstruction is rivetting - well worth waiting through Part I.

    Those who are intertested in seeing the ballet but who cannot be at the right place at the right time can refer to the BBC movie "Riot of Spring," available in 16 parts on Youtube, which gives a good enough impression, I think, of the choreography.

    The Joffrey will perform "Rite" with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom this summer.

    I have seen a couple of live staged "Rites" in Europe, but none of them was able to keep my eyes open as I listened to Stravinsky's astonishing score.

    I myself have not seen Hodson's reconstruction live.

    1. Erratum:

      The title of the BBC film is "Riot at the Rite."

  2. I suspect that the Mariinsky, with its command of detail and dramatic gesture, could maintain tension in Part I of the Nijinsky. The Joffrey dancers were simply lost in Part I—whereas mere display of energy easily carried the Joffrey dancers through Part II.

    Have you seen Paul Taylor’s treatment of the Stravinsky, which uses the two-piano version of the score and which involves a brand-new scenario?

    1. I saw the Preljoraj and the more famous Pina Bausch - the latter way back in the seventies - but not Paul Taylor's.

      I walked out of the Preljoraj, by the way. I felt uncomfortable having purchased a ticket to see a gang rape. I have avoided all modern dance programs ever since except Matthrew Bourne's "Swan Lake".

      "Le Sacre du Printemps" should be heard and not seen.

  3. Momix and Pilobolus have Twin Cities appearances scheduled in the next few weeks, but I doubt we shall be there.