Had Maurice Bejart, as professional rumor had it, managed the impossible? Colleagues whose opinions I respect were suggesting that the French-Born dancer choreographer, director of the Belgian based Ballet of the 20th Centurytroupe, had designed the one modern ballet version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" that wasn't overwhelmed by the music.
Though Bejart's choreography dates back to 1959, I had never a chance to see ti (it hasn't been shown in the United States since its American premiere in 1971). So I dashed to New York last week to catch the final performance of "Rite" during Bejart's recent two-week engagement at the Uris Theater.
I had to agree with my confidants. This was "Rite" to reckon with, peerhaps not the definitive dance statement on the subject, and surely not the revolutionary equivalent of Stravinsky's epoch-making inspiration, but nevertheless an impressive accomplishment. Bejart has at least succeeded, where so many others have failed, in divising stage pictures that aren't eclipsed by the unaided imagination of the listener, responding to one of the century's most original and cataclysmic scores.
"Rite" has long been regarded by many in the dance world as a sort of choreographic sound-barrier, a challenge beyond the powers of mortals. Some have specualted aloud that if anyone coud do it, it would be George Balanchine, whose genius in transcribing Stravinsky's music inot dance is demonstrable fact. But Balanchine says he woun't try - it's on his list of musical works that have nothing to gain from dance appendage and too much to lose.
What's more, according to Lincoln Kirstein, if Balanchine ever changed his mind, he'd use the two-piano version - for a variety of interesting and practical reasons - rather than the orchestral score.
However intimidating "Rite" may be, it has not deterred a bevy of choreographers from giving in to the temptation to take it on. Among those versions that balletomanes of my generation particularly regret not having seen are the original setting for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Vavlav Nijinsky, the one that touched off the notorious Parisioan of 1913; the staging by Leonide Massine, which, in its American transplantation in 1930, found Martha Graham dancing as the Chosen One; and a version by the late Mary Wigman, the expressionist innovator who mounted a "Rite" very late in her carrer, at the Berlin Opera in 1957.
Perhaps among these were one or more to put beside the Bejart. Also in the running is Walt Disney's controversial but unquestionably imaginative animated version for "Fantasia" (1940), which altered the setting from pagan Russia to earth primeval. The more recent productions I've seen, however, including Kenneth MacMillan's for the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi version of 1964, and a brave, individual attempt by young Oscar Araiz for the Royal Winning company (staged in Washington a few season back), all succumbed to the competing force of the music, despite moments of strength and vision.
We saw a typical example of this kind of defeat in the Glen Tetley "Rite" presented by American Ballet Theater at Kennedy Center last winter. Tatley wrestld valiantly but vainly with th e challenger, striving for bristling physical excitement but generating more heat than fire.
The curious thing is that Tetley's seething, writing choreography is not that far removed from Bejart's in underlying concept. Both stress convulsive animalian movement, with conspicuously sexual implications, and both have a sort of jungle atmosphere, though this is more pronounced in the Tetley.
The reason one makes it where the other does'nt is that Bejart's choreography has more sinew to it - it's more inventive, more striking in its imagery, more resourceful in its use of musical rhythms and dynamics. The Tetley, moreover, veers perilously close to vulgarity in its orgiastic aspects.Bejart, however, who's nothing it not blatantly theatrical, amy rely on a lot on a throbbing sexuality, but he's never crass about it.
The score imposes certain constraints on virtually anyone who uses it, and Bejart is no execption. Merely to generate the kind of dynamic impact implicit in the music, it's pretty much inevitable that masses of dancers will be used in large unison configurations. But this plays to Bejart's strength - he's especually adept at evolving dazzling configuration for stage-filling esembles (there are 80 in his company, and nearly two-thirds of them appear in "Rite" at once.) He does'nt stick to the original, rather detailed scenatio, but he does preserve the sense of tribal cremony that was its basis.
The first half, originally titled "Adoration of the Earth," is Bejart's real triumph. Dimly outlined shapes gradually rise, with the break of day into widly brutish supplicaion and strife, at times in exact rhythmic concord with the score, at times arrestingly at odds with the musical rhythm, but always in tune with Stravinsky's driving development.
The end of this all-male section, which culminates in the consecration of a masculine Chosen One as a counterpart to the female of the next half, has you jumping out of your seat in sympathetic vibration with the dancers. Hordes come upstage, sometimes as if to lunge across the footlights, as the choreography builds to match the dithyrambic peaks of Stravinsky's first-part coda.
The second half, which intorduces the women of the tribe, is something of an anticlimax in its more predictable, more conventional sexual metaphors, though Jorge Donn and guest Suzanne Farell did wonders to sustain the nervous hyperbole as the Chosen Ones. The ending is quintessential Bejart in its simplistic symbolism - the Terminal Kiss, a Neolithic love - death.
The whole of this "Rite" in fact, embraces all sides of the Bejart paradox - his ingenuity, his vulnerability to superficial effect, his electric sense of theater and his ramshackle eclecticism. It's a pity this one got away from the Kennedy Center, where the Bejart company has yet of perform.
In four visits to this country, he troupe has made it to Washington twice, both times for brief engagements at Wolf Trap. It's time the company - by far the most interesting ballet entity in continental Europe, and as handsome a collection of dancers as one would care to see - came to Washington proper, and when and if they do come let's hope they bring "Rite," which would be putting Bejart's best foot forward.