The notion of sacrificing yourself to appease the gods -- or at least your mother -- looms over Trey McIntyre's bold but unwieldy interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which the Washington Ballet premiered Thursday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater.
Since its explosive debut in 1913, this music has called choreographers to match its violent rhythms with provocative work of their own. The ballet for which it was commissioned -- Vaslav Nijinsky's famously shocking depiction of a young virgin's death in a fertility ritual -- was shouted down by its infuriated audience. Many of the dance works that have followed involve similarly primitive or phantasmagoric motifs.
Washington Ballet dancers deliver an emotionally intense performance in "The Rite of Spring."
In a novel approach, McIntyre moved the scenario into a stylized Edith Wharton-era ballroom, where the elegantly cut gowns and waistcoats can't mask demands for conformity as absolute as in any tribal community.
Here, the victim is a depressed young woman (the Hostess) who is bullied by her mother into betrothal to a vain and brutal man. The oversexed mom is a good deal more entranced by her prospective son-in-law than is the horrified young woman, who discovers that only her gentle handmaiden (the Assistant) truly understands her.
It's not a bad scenario for a ballet, a cross between "Romeo and Juliet" and "Mommie Dearest." The dancers respond with large-scale, emotionally intense performances, particularly Laura Urgelles's Hostess, who is worn down by agony; Erin Mahoney as the grandly evil Mother, and Brianne Bland as the sensitive Assistant. They fully believe in this work to its last strained moment.
McIntyre's concept works for a while. One is drawn in by the frantic drama, the grandiose costumes by the one-name designer Vandal and the aggressively stark set design by Nicholas Phillips. In the opening scene, Urgelles paints a deeply moving picture of dread and despair, popping pills in her dressing room (what kind of pills did one pop back then?) and gathering the courage to enter the ballroom. Mahoney makes an unforgettable entrance, managing an air of commanding disdain while sauntering about with flat-footed casualness. As the other guests start to party, there is an agitated sweep to the dancing, with legs and arms flying every which way, that fits with the music's mounting threat.
But too frequently the choreography feels haphazard. The flinging about that the Assistant does while pleading and beseeching looks an awful lot like what she does when she is angry, for instance. And right about the time that the guests don blindfolds and Urgelles and Mahoney are swiveled around the stage on incongruous raised platforms, the plot becomes plainly ludicrous. Its violent ending feels like a cop-out, an improbable non-resolution to a dramatic tangle.
Then there are McIntyre's attempts to shock. The Kennedy Center Web site cautioned that the ballet might not be suitable for children, and Artistic Director Septime Webre, in his customary introductory remarks to the audience, warned that McIntyre's work is "absolutely PG-13." What would a PG-13 ballet look like, one wondered?
It turns out the ballet contains some of the very same formulaic elements that movies adopt to get that teen-enticing rating: There were sexual situations (implied rape and other acts, which was the most unsavory part -- McIntyre makes the assault look sexy) as well as a lot of skin (men cavorting in flesh-colored dance belts, the equivalent of a jock strap). And a kiss between ballerinas. This was played up as the dramatic center of the ballet, though there was little surprise here; the buildup of romance between Hostess and Assistant had occupied much of the ballet, so by the time the lipsticked embrace happened, it was utterly predictable, though sweet.
But if McIntyre had more carefully plotted his conclusion, endowing his characters with more depth and endeavoring to understate through movement rather than sledgehammer with stagy effects and violent sex, he might have produced an interesting interpretation that didn't trample on taste, which was the most unfortunate sacrifice here.
McIntyre need look no further than the work that preceded his, Christopher Wheeldon's "There Where She Loved," for an example of complex emotional tension without melodrama. This work by the gifted young British choreographer, originally created for the Royal Ballet, presents a string of romantic encounters in a casual and heartless way, desperation following bliss with the disconcerting ease of child's play. Not every section looked polished -- the intertwined partnering was exceedingly difficult to carry off effortlessly, especially since this is the company's first exposure to Wheeldon's fluid style. But one could tell Wheeldon has a sure hand with his material.
The dancers rose admirably to Wheeldon's challenges. Urgelles danced with a deepening poignancy, as her character traversed from careless flirtation to rejection and despondency to finally pulling herself together to go back on the prowl. Maki Onuki shifted quite remarkably from prim self-absorption to sudden heartache in her duet with Brian Corman; you read it all on her sweet, childlike face. Mahoney brought a seething revulsion to her extraordinarily telling, sour duet with Runqiao Du -- and the unexpected ending, with Urgelles stepping out of the shadows to catch Du on the rebound, capped a keen emotional journey. Soprano Dorothy Kingston and mezzo soprano Shelley Waite added rich shadings to the Kurt Weill songs, with Margarita Gramaticova's sensitive handling of the Weill as well as Chopin on piano.
The evening opened with George Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," the company's first performance of this 1972 work, set to Stravinsky's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D. It's good to see the Washington Ballet tackle this jumbo ballet, with its crumpled lines, expansive tension and surprising little visual outbursts so cleverly meshed with the music. Further performances ought to strengthen the dancers. For now, one can admire the seriousness of the effort, and point to promising performances from Sara Ivan, Mahoney, Du and Corman.
The program continues through tomorrow.