LOS ANGELES, SEPT. 30 -- With its revival of "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), the Joffrey Ballet has not only recovered a crucial part of our cultural past, but also given us a living treasure for the present and the future. No other choreographic version of "Sacre" known to me can touch it in naked originality, sacramental force or sublimity.
It would have been no surprise if history had taken precedence over art at tonight's revival at the Los Angeles Music Center. The performance of the work in its original 1913 version, with Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography and Nicholas Roerich's designs restored by artists and scholars Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, was so loaded with the sense of occasion that esthetic shortcomings might almost have passed unnoticed. There was satisfaction enough, after all, in the sheer feat of reproducing this epic-making creation, which hadn't been experienced, apart from its celebrated Stravinsky score, in three-quarters of a century. The outcome, however, turned out to be as significant artistically as historically.
Instead of the rioting that marked the Paris premiere by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1913, tonight's keyed-up crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion responded with a standing ovation. Hodson, Archer and principal dancer Beatriz Rodriguez, who portrayed the Chosen One, were pelted with bouquets, and a veritable fusillade of bravos greeted Robert Joffrey, whose unwavering persistence of vision made the miracle possible.
The new production of "Sacre" grabs one at a deep, gut level, just as the original must have done for the spectators of its day, favorably disposed or not. That's because the ballet, in its very choreographic, musical and visual form, speaks to us of profound, primal and timeless matters -- ferocious, inexorable forces of nature and the terror and exaltation they cause us. "Sacre" inspires awe, moreover, now as at its birth, as the testament of a world shaken to the core by fundamental revolutions in science, society and morals.
Still, among the surprises that seeing this version of "Sacre" holds is the realization of how upbeat, how basically optimistic the concepts of Nijinsky, Roerich and Stravinsky seem in their collective interaction.
Despite the motif of sacrifice and the violence of the Chosen One; despite the acrid, shrieking dissonance and brute rhythms of the score; despite the eerie menace of some of Roerich's primitivist images, such as the looming poles in the dark backdrop of Act 2, topped by furry hides and beastly skulls -- despite all this, the message of "Sacre" is one of rebirth. It is, after all, a celebration of spring, however discordant and violent. It is a work that says that at the cost of suffering, exhaustion and loss, life will perennially renew itself.
The stunningly executed Joffrey staging prompts an obvious and important but probably unanswerable question: Was this how the ballet looked in 1913? Has Nijinsky's choreography been faithfully resurrected, or even reasonably approximated?
Short of time travel, there is no way to be certain. Author-scholar-critic Nicolas Slonimsky, who saw the 1913 production, was reportedly in tonight's audience. Possibly other eyewitnesses to the original made it, too. Their reactions might help us judge fairly, but would hardly be likely to prove decisive, since memory is fallible and opinions differ. Indeed, Hodson has said that one of the things that gave her courage to attempt the reconstruction was the realization that "Sacre" couldn't have resisted alteration even if it had continued to be maintained in repertory -- indeed, even if Nijinsky had survived to watch over it.
What can be said is that the research by Hodson and Archer appears to have been as close to exhaustive as the pragmatic needs of the ballet stage allow, and that in any case, the result of their efforts stands on its own. It has a feeling of authenticity about it -- the exquisitely detailed costumes and sets, and the dancers' gestures, steps and spatial patterns correspond to the picture our imaginations have concocted on the basis of historical photographs, drawings, written accounts and even legends. More than that, the ballet as a whole seemed imbued with the kind of strangeness, intensity and mystical power one would hope to find in a work issuing from such an extraordinary trio of collaborators as Stravinsky, Roerich and Nijinsky.
Nijinsky's own description, at the time of early Ballets Russes rehearsals, applies to the ballet as the Joffrey troupe performs it: "It is really the soul of nature expressed by movement to music. It is the life of the stones and the trees ... it is a thing of concrete masses, not of individual effects."
Even so, Nijinsky began working on the ballet by creating the final "Sacrificial Dance" first, using his sister Bronislava as his choreographic model, as he'd done earlier for his "L'Apre`s-Midi D'un Faune" ("Afternoon of a Faun"). This is the dance toward which the entire 35-minute ballet gravitates, and from which many of its salient postures, configurations and dynamics derive.
It is, as Hodson has put it, "a jumping marathon -- a sacred endurance contest, more like aerobics than ballet but more a trial of spiritual valor than of virtuosity." Its drastically angled shapes, quaking limbs, fierce stampings and heavy downward, inward anatomical pressures are thoroughly characteristic of ballet's movement lexicon. In Rodriguez (one of two Joffrey dancers assigned the role, the other being Carole Valleskey, impressive in the premiere as the wildly bounding 300-year-old woman of the opening scene), the performance reached an apex of incisive strength, concentration and magnetism. Long black braids flying, her body wracked by savagely contrary twistings and rhythms, she seemed to gather the accumulated ritual force of the ballet into a single implosive knot.
The ballet's two halves correspond in tone, coloration and dynamics to the opposition of day (Act 1) and night (Act 2) Stravinsky called for in his stage directions. Act 1 moves from a series of tribal ceremonies, celebrated by dancers in crouching, huddled clumps or bristling circles, to the climactic entrance of a stooped, ancient Sage, whose ritual kissing of earth sets off a thundering finale by the ensemble. Act 2 introduces the sacrificial victim -- the Chosen One -- who appears seemingly out of nowhere in the midst of a rapt round of maidens. The Chosen One stands frozen in a baring of mute anxiety (Rodriguez was amazing through this passage, as compelling stock-still as when moving in highest gear), until the male Ancestors, the hoariest of them ominously cloaked in thick bearskins, surround her for the convulsive, fatal coda.
It would be hard to praise the backdrops and costumes, reconstructed according to Roerich's designs under Archer's direction, highly enough. The primeval landscapes of the setting, with their vivid earthy colors, thick outlines and masses, and vibrantly organic forms conspire to wholly mesmerize the eye. Thomas Skelton's lighting was, as always, totally and economically apt. Conductor Allan Lewis led the orchestra in a fittingly tense, fervent account of the ever-astonishing score.
On initial acquaintance, the production seemed, from a dance standpoint, to be to a subtle but palpable degree less distinctively Russian in character, texture and atmosphere than one might surmise the original to have been. The dancing, for all its expertise, simply lacks Slavic schmaltz. It's the one concrete reservation that suggested itself about an achievement that can fairly be termed monumental.
It was wonderful, on the other hand, to be able to see this "Sacre" in the context of two earlier Joffrey remountings of Diaghilev-era ballets -- Nijinsky's hauntingly exotic "L'Apre`s-Midi D'un Faune" and the wacky, cubist "Parade," the 1917 collaboration of Massine, Cocteau, Picasso and Satie. The framework confirmed that the period was a richly creative one by any measure, but also that "Sacre" is in a ballet class of its own, shared at most by one other work -- Nijinska's "Les Noces" of 1923, to another great Stravinsky score.