I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at the ballet Saturday. I got the opportunity to hear one of my favorite pieces of music done live by a very good orchestra, and the chance to see the debut of new choreography, all for only ten bucks. That said . . .
The Louisville Symphony Orchestra's performance was superb, given the limited size of the orchestra. Le Sacre du Printemps calls for a huge orchestra, and the smaller lineup fielded by LSO couldn't work up the bombast and violence present in the ideal orchestration of the ballet. Given that fact, though, LSO did a wonderful, nuanced job. Not quite the full power of Rite, but pretty swell nonetheless.
The choreography, though, was another story. The dancing, best I could tell (I'm very far from being an expert on dance), was very good. The big problem was the fundamental conception of the choreography:
In this version of Rite of Spring, the Company represents a group who has been completely drained of their life force and their connection to the natural world. The central character represents all that is alive and beautiful, yet ultimately fragile and temporary. She is like a beautiful flower that blossoms for only a moment and is then destroyed. But rather than being chosen or singled out, one gets the sense that what is happening to her has already happened to each individual in the group and that she is simply the next in line.
-- from the program
The result was, as Sharri so aptly put it, "steam punk meets West Side Story". The dancers worked an 80s-style distopian vibe more appropriate for 1984 than for Rite of Spring. All the movements were robotic and claustrophobic, apparently to better set off the "liveliness" of the lead. All this was done in a set that looked like an industrial concrete basement, with concrete pillars and rusty water pipes forming a cage. In the end, the dance was entertaining and visually interesting, but ultimately wrong for the piece.
The reason Rite of Spring caused riots at its premiere is chaos: the ballet is full of the violence and chaos of nature & the pagan rituals that celebrate nature. The new choreography replaced the chaos of the original with a sort of freeze dried death. It misses the point at the most fundamental level.
It also seems to the product of an imagination alien to the true power of the piece, an imagination that treats the dissonance, crazy rhythms, and tortured voicings as esoterica. It is a typically "liberal/open-minded" response to a musicality that still, after almost 96 years, has yet to be assimilated into the mainstream "serious music" consciousness.
But hey, beats the hell out of hanging with the hipsters listening to yet another Stooges retread.
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Ralph Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending provided interesting context. Premiered the year after Rite, Lark is much more lyrical and meditative (not to mention consonant) than Rite. It is also much better served by the choreography of Bruce Marks. It shouldn't need to be said that Lark Ascending is much easier to handle than Rite of Spring, and it was the highlight of the night. Actually, Lark itself was worth the price of admission.
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Of course, self congratulation was the currency of the evening, same as it was when Sharri and I went to see The Magic Flute. But that's a story for another time . . .