One cannot help but feel thankful to the Oakland Ballet--which made a single appearance last night at Tawes Theatre in the University of Maryland's summer arts festival--for affording us the privilege of the East Coast premiere of its production of Bronislava Nijinska's "Les Noces" ("The Wedding"), created in 1923 to Stravinsky's music and first performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Before Oakland resurrected it last year under the supervision of the choreographer's daughter Irina, Nijinska's powerfully original ballet--still fresh, startling and poignant, as last night's account confirmed--had not been staged in this country since England's Royal Ballet last showed it in New York, 16 years ago.
As it turned out, the experience of seeing it was both immensely gratifying and a frustrating letdown. Nijinska's conception, in conjunction with Stravinsky's stunning score and Natalia Goncharova's original designs, is so compelling that the Oakland performance managed to be sporadically gripping despite two crushing drawbacks--the poor reproduction of the music, and the entirely too wishy-washy dynamics of the dancing. The outward semblance of the piece, at least visually, was there, but little of the marrow or soul.
It was a heavy disadvantage from the start to have to make do with recorded sound, but this was disastrously compounded by the weak, colorless audio and a musical performance that was far too polite and pallid in any case. The shrill voices, the brazen clangor of the pianos and the brutal rhythmic chop of the percussion have to penetrate to the bone to make the force of this music palpable.
The production certainly has its merits. Irina Nijinska and choreologist Juliette Kando have seen to it that the blocking of masses and the angular body shapes and gestures that constitute the choreographic outlines have been faithfully reproduced. So too have Goncharova's poetically simple peasant costumes and severe set been effectively reconstructed, and aptly lit. As for the dancing, it must be kept in mind that the Oakland troupe is a regional company of limited resources. Irina Nijinska has claimed that their technical level is closer to that of the Diaghilev company than the far more polished Royal Ballet, whose refinement, she has suggested, can actually be a detriment in "Les Noces," with its earthy manners and deliberately crude veneer. But the stark, blunt, sinewy peasant quality that is at the heart of the work--an unsentimental depiction of a peasant wedding as a communal rite--has eluded the Oakland dancers, and with it, the terror, fear, passion and mystery of the piece. All those stabbing toe shoes, stamping ensembles and heavy jumps are so softened out they become merely decorative, picturesque.
The oddest part was that the company brought some of the roughhewn quality and gutsy force that "Les Noces" demands to its subsequent performance of Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid," in a production overseen by the choreographer. Much of the mime and some of the dance shapes were on the blurry side, and the main characterizations, except for Michael Lowe's impressive Alias, were rather thin, but at least the performance erred on the side of emotional truth--all in all, it is a more than respectable account of the work for a company not of the first rank. The piece by the troupe's director, Ronn Guidi, which opened the program, "Fantasia para un Gentilhombre"--a sort of medieval rake's progress--is a negligible effort in shortwinded takes, with choreography slavishly bound to the metrical regularity of the Joaquin Rodrigo score.
It took nearly 60 years for Nijinska's "Les Noces" to reach Washington. One's gratitude has to be tempered with apprehension that it may take another 60 before the masterpiece can be seen here in its full artistic dimension.