LEAVE IT to Paul Taylor to do the undoable. The innovative choreographer, now 49, is bringing to Washington, as the piece-de-resistance of a week of appearances by his company at Lisner Auditorium starting Tuesday evening, the first performance anywhere of his new dance version of Stravinsky's celebrated "Le Sacre du Printemps" -- "The Rite of Spring."
The Paris premiere of the opus by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1913, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, not only ushered in the era of "modernism" in music with a cacaphonic detonation heard round the world, but also set off perhaps the most notorious audience riot in all of theatrical history. The production lasted only six performances, and Nijinsky's choreography -- much maligned and probably drastically misunderstood at the time -- was lost to posterity except for personal reminiscence and a few pictures.
Since then, and for a variety of other reasons as well, the "Sacre" score has had a reputation as a death-trap for choreography. It's a matter of human nature, of course, that Himalayan challenges always have their takers, and so it has been with "Sacre." There have been at least 22 independent attempts since Nijinsky, not just by fearless innocents but also by such stalwarts of the art as Leonide Massine (who mounted no less than three productions, including the one featuring Martha Graham as the sacrificial "Chosen One" in 1930), Lester Horton (in Hollywood Bowl in 1937), Mary Wigman (in East Berlin, 1957), Kenneth MacMillan, Maurice Bejart (by all odds, one of the most successful), John Neumeier, Glen Tetley and the late Joyce Trisler. By no means the least effective of such tries was the one devised by Walt Disney and his associates for "Fantasia" in 1940.
Still, conquest has remained elusive and most partial. All the more reason why Taylor seems a logical candidate for the job. Though esthetic radicalism has never been his main bent, he's certainly no stranger to unconventionality. It was Taylor, in 1956, who with a partner stood and sat stock-still through a piece of music, thus bringing the terpsichorean avant-garde to the point of no return in a motionless dance.
His wit, originality and musical sensitivity have made him one of the prime choreographers of the post-Graham generations, and the prolific ourpouring of his creative gifts over the Dance Company -- if we may be permitted to go out on a fairly secure limb -- the most consistently brilliant and stimulating dance troupe in today's world. It was the charisma of Taylor and his work that lured such ballyhooed exponents of classical ballet as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov to seek -- and obtain -- participation in the troupe's performances of recent years.
The original scenario of "Sacre" was subtitled "Scenes of Pagan Russia," and the action concerned, in Stravinsky's words, " . . . a solemn pagan rite: Wise elders seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring." Most versions subsequent to Nijinsky's have varied the details but retained the basic framework -- Brian Macdonald's production in 1964 for the Harkness Ballet tied itself into Shirley Jackson's story, "The Lottery," for example.
It was almost a foregone conclusion, however, that Taylor would take a different sort of tack, and different it assuredly is. Taylor's "Sacre" is neither solemn nor pagan, though it is a rite, as he says, "of sorts." Taylor is loath to "explain" too much about new work before it's seen, prefeering for spectators to come to their own ideas about things, but he did let a few cats out of the bag in a telephone interview from New York a few days ago. His own subtitle is "The Rehearsal," and the troupe first introduces itself onstage as "a dance company," together with a Rehearsal Mistress, portrayed by long-time Taylor soloist Bettie de Jong. The self-explanatory characters in the ensuing enactment of the rehearsal are called: The Girl (Ruth Andrien); The Private Eye (Christopher Gillis); The Crook (Elie Chaib); His Mistress (Monica Morris); His Stooge (Lila York), and assorted Henchman, Policemen and "Bar Maidens," an allusion to the sacrificial virgins of the original.
"It's obviously a sort of Runyonesque gumshoe story," Taylor says, "but it's all done as a dance company rehearsal, you see." The choreographer also notes that he's using, not the familiar symphonic format of the score, but Stravinsky's own arrangement for four-handed piano duet. Some reasons for this are purely practical -- the arrangement is in public domain, and the duet is thus far more affordable, as well as more portable, than an orchestra could ever be. But there's another reason that has to do with Taylor's conception: "This is the musical version Stravinsky and Nijinsky used for their rehearsals," he explains.
There's also an interesting sidelight that has to do with George Balanchine, who as a teen-ager in Russia had applied to Soviet theatre authorities for permission to choreograph "Sacre," but was denied same. Many have speculated what might result if Balanchine were ever to turn his genius to this music; when he's asked about it, he usually says that Stravinsky's masterpiece is complete in itself, and it would be folly to try to add to it. But he adds that if ever he did attempt it, he'd use the piano duet version of the score.
Taylor's "Sacre" makes other nods in the direction of Nijinsky, whose gifts as a choreographer have been undergoing a contemporary reassessment upwards, abetted by such things as the recent, revelatory, Joffrey Ballet production of "Afternoon of a Faun." "I have a great interest in the original production of 'Sacre,'" Taylor says. "I've been reading a lot about it lately, and looking at the pictures. My version will have some hoped-for cross-references to Nijinsky, for instance, in the flat use of the body. The whole thing will be very stylized, and there'll be a bit of Oriental flavor -- I figure, the original was set in the steppes of Central Asia, and China is just next door, so to speak. So our 'crooks' are Chinese; there's a suggestion the action may abe taking place in Chinatown, but it's really not very explicit. In the forefront of my mind, the whole ballet is an exercise in style, primarily."
There's another respect in which Taylor's version relates to the original, in the way a dance rehearsal is viewed as a species of rite. "The dance has many ritualistic aspects," Taylor comments, "and there are numerous correlations between what happens in the 'rehearsal' and the private-eye plot. Some of it has to do with the use of mirrors and mirror-images (the Crook and his Stooge, for example), and at the end, mirrors descend in a way that may remind people of a dance studio."
Picking up on the historical or professional allusions, however, is in no way essential to grasping or enjoying the ballet, Taylor is quick to add. "Anyone who doesn't 'get' any of these little cross-references won't miss the fun of the piece," he says. Though he discribes the settings (by John Rawlings) as "minimal," the narrative does take one through such surroundings as a bar, a mistress' flat, a city park, a jail.
One of the major problems encountered in mounting the Nijinsky production was the enormous difficulty Diaghilev's classically-oriented dancers had with Stravinsky's then-revolutionary rhythmic structures, with their unpredictable syncopations, abrupt metrical shifts and other complexities, as well as with the choreographer's equally iconoclastic movement style. The company set aside six weeks of rehearsal in preparation for the premiere, and even so, there were incessant complaints of impossibility from the troupe. In this regard, times have changed greatly. Asked to what extent his dancers found the score's rhythmic intricacies an exceptional obstacle, Taylor said simply, "It wasn't really a problem for them -- dancers these days are used to all kinds of weird counts."
"Le Sacre du Printemps" will be only one of the highlights of the albundantly diversified fare the Taylor Company is bringing to Lisner this week, in seven performances which will contain 11 works divided into three seperate programs. Of special interest besides "Sacre" will be the Washington premiere of "Nightshade" to music by Scriabin, described by Taylor as "nightmarish" and inspired by etchings of Max Ernst; the revival and local premiere of "Insects and Heroes," a Taylor "classic" dating from 1961; and a revival of the comically sinister "Big Bertha," set to music from antique band machines. Other Taylor pieces to be seen, each with its own spice and distinction, are; "Aureole"; "Three Epitaphs"; "Cloven Kingdom"; "Images" "Diggity"; "Esplanade"; and "Profiles."