For the dancers of the Mariinsky Ballet, the unearthly demands of classical technique come easily: the elegant hypermobility, the suppleness, the pointework. Grace is their default mode.
But when it comes to the knock-kneed stomping and hunchbacked writhing in “The Rite of Spring,” they need cheat sheets. It’s the only way they can learn how to count out the roaring discord of Stravinsky’s music.
On Tuesday, the Mariinsky Ballet will begin performances of an interpretation of the original “Rite of Spring” production by Vaslav Nijinsky, whose infamous premiere by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1913 gave rise to one of the most treasured scandals in theater history. A century later, even without the distraction of a howling audience, dancers are still having trouble with the music.
“Here’s a little secret,” says Yuri Fateev, director of the esteemed St. Petersburg company. “When we start rehearsing, the dancers are counting with lists of paper.
“It looks a little funny at the beginning,” he says, “each dancer holding this list of paper and counting and rehearsing.” But they need the written notes to keep track of who is supposed to be jumping and jerking, and when. The stage is often filled with groups of dancers, each group moving to a different rhythm.
“This is the special atmosphere of the ballet,” Fateev says, speaking by phone after a rehearsal in New York, where the company is performing before its engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Jan. 27 through Feb. 1. The Washington program also includes Michel Fokine’s “Le Spectre de la Rose” (“The Spirit of the Rose”) and “The Swan” (commonly called “The Dying Swan” in the West), and the “Grand Pas” excerpt from “Paquita,” by Marius Petipa.
The program represents two extremes of Russian ballet: the quintessential ballerina role in “The Swan” — an achingly poignant, soft-edged solo for a wispy avian creature in a white tutu — and the crumpled body angles, turned-in feet and raging music of “The Rite of Spring.” Counting that music is only the start of the dancers’ troubles with this production.
“This is a difficult work, and nobody likes the difficulty,” the director says. The ballet, subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russian in Two Parts,” takes place among ancient tribespeople in rough, baggy tunics and fur hats. They welcome spring with a pagan fertility rite, and a girl is sacrificed. The body language echoes the brutality of the act: The ancients dance with pigeon-toed feet, twisted limbs and bent-over postures.
Perfecting this style requires more rehearsal than usual. One of the Mariinsky’s ballet masters is exclusively tasked with overseeing this production, which was first unveiled in 1987 by the Joffrey Ballet. The detective work was carried out by dance historian Millicent Hodson, who used photos; sketches by artist Nicolas Roerich, who crafted the decor, and others who saw the work; interviews with a few surviving cast members, as well as a good amount of guesswork to come up with an approximation of Nijinsky’s work. Roerich’s bright, folkloric designs were re-created.
This production won’t transport audiences back to that fiery moment in Paris when people were hitting one another on the head with umbrellas. Even if it were, somehow, an exact step-for-step replica of the original, it would be unlikely to feel as revolutionary as legend holds that it did at the time. Lynn Garafola, the prominent Ballets Russes historian and chairman of the dance department at Barnard College, says she thinks Nijinsky’s choreography had little to do with the uproar in Paris.
“My own personal feeling is people responded not so much to the ballet as the music,” Garafola says. “The music is tremendously rhythmic, it hammers, it seems so mechanistic. That was more shocking than seeing dancers stamping in those costumes. Because after all, there were others like it.”
Michel Fokine’s “Polovtsian Dances,” also with designs by Roerich, had been performed four years previous, in 1909. This homage to warriors had a wild, vigorous energy, with whirling folk dances and ruggedly garbed men trimmed in fur bounding around in blunt, animalistic jumps. But it didn’t have Stravinsky’s stormy dissonance; the music by Alexander Borodin, from the opera “Prince Igor,” is soaring and tuneful.
The music, in fact, is what Fateev says is most satisfying about performing “The Rite of Spring.” “The strength of the music is genius, especially with a good orchestra. You feel there’s so much power in the instruments; you feel the very deep sound,” he says. “It is like a voice from the past.”
And as is true in all great works of art, that voice from the past still speaks to the present. Fateev sees the sacrificial virgin as representing professional death, a metaphor for the brevity of a dancer’s career.
“We are taking classes, joining the company, making our career, learning new ballets and going up, up, up — and then at the end of our career we are dying. We can’t dance anymore. Time is going forward and out, for the ballet dancer. We feel we can dance forever and it’s not like that. We have to give the chance for others to come onstage.”
Indeed, dancing and dying are linked throughout ballet history. The canon is full of female sacrifice: “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “La Bayadere.” “Women died pretty regularly in ballet,” Garafola says, “but the ethnographic material that this sacrifice is embedded in, this comes from Nicolas Roerich.” Roerich also was an archeologist and historian, and a specialist in pre-Slavonic rituals.
For Garafola, “The Rite of Spring” reminds us of the possibilities in ballet. “It’s good to see something like this on a ballet stage, to be reminded that ballet is not just ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Dying Swan’ or Balanchine’s ‘Serenade,’ ” she says.
With the Russian defectors coming West in the 1960s and ’70s, an idea solidified that Russian ballet was confined to a narrow vocabulary and repertoire, because that was what these dancers knew in the Soviet Union. “But if you look at 20th-century ballet with Diaghilev,” she says, “you see that there were many possibilities.”
On this Mariinsky tour, “The Rite of Spring” will be pounded out by dancers who each morning take a traditional ballet class and who before and after “The Rite” will be wafting through “Spectre” and whirling through “Paquita” — just as they would have done in 1913.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Fateev, the Mariinsky director, sees echoes of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky work in the fickleness of human emotions, and how quickly they can result in the savagery that makes headlines today.
“We love other people, we’re against other people. We choose people and try to make them the bad one,” he says.
As in the tragedy at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris?
“Yes, of course,” Fateev says. “In Paris, in Israel, in Syria, in Ukraine also.
“In the modern world, it is almost the same as 100,000 years ago,” he continues. “We are differently dressed, but we are still the same.”
Roerich, it seems, had a similar view. But the artist’s sympathies lay with the ancient, “uncivilized” folk depicted in “The Rite of Spring,” for that culture was dominated by art. Of the audience uproar that greeted the 1913 premiere, he later wrote: “Who knows, perhaps at that very moment they were inwardly exultant and expressing this feeling like the most primitive of peoples.
“But I must say,” Roerich continued, “this wild primitivism had nothing in common with the refined primitiveness of our ancestors, for whom rhythm, the sacred symbol, and refinement of gesture were great and sacred concepts.”
The Mariinsky Ballet will perform at the Kennedy Center Opera House Jan. 27 to Feb. 1. Tickets: $30-$165. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.