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Carolina Performing Arts is presenting The Joffrey Ballet for two nights in Memorial Hall, as part of its endlessly fascinating series, "The Rite of Spring at One Hundred." The Joffrey is dancing the reconstruction by “dance detectives” Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer of the original — but lost — choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, which the Joffrey supported with the help of a large NEA grant, and which the company premiered in 1987. This Nijinsky/Hodson version of The Rite of Spring has since been staged by many companies around the world. The Joffrey has been touring with it, in its own centenary celebration, since early this year. In dance years, it is a long time since 1987 and the dancers who reconstructed the work with their bodies have since graduated from dance’s daily rigor. But two were in the Memorial Hall audience on the 23rd: Tyler Walters and Julie Janus Walters, both now on the Duke Dance faculty, preserving dance history one student at a time.
After all the years of wondering about this fabled dance, and the more recent months of saturation exposure to the music and other versions of the dance, seeing it brought to life was not a disappointment. It did not shock. But it did not disappoint — in fact it is much richer and more exciting than any film of it can convey. The sheer number of dancers crowding the stage is a bit overwhelming, as is the fact that there are always at least two things going on at once, if not forty. The peculiar dynamics of the dance to Stravinsky’s rhythmically complex score unsettle one, and along with the purposefully awkward, angular body positions, make work that perverts the ballet standard of smooth, graceful beauty. This prime piece of early Modernism still has the force to wrench, if not to surprise. What one cannot grasp at all from stills or video is the importance of the entire visual scheme to the ballet. The over-the-top make-up, originally Nijinsky’s contribution, looks not clownish but ceremonial (and effectively obliterates individuality). The costumes, originally designed by Nicholas Roerich, which look frumpy in photos, are amazing in motion, with all their rich colors and painted symbols calling to the colors in the huge backdrops (reconstructed Nicholas Roerich designs) of abstracted Russian countryside. The huge energy of the music is equaled by that of the choreography as it proceeds, stamping its way through the semi-narrative structure of communal springtime ritual. I have seen many productions of The Rite of Spring that take widely varying approaches to the dance; I found this version more emotionally powerful than most of them, if not as innovative by today’s standards. The end, in particular, shook me. Ancestors in Bearskins (very believable bearskins) circle The Chosen One (Joanna Wozniak on the 23rd) as she dances to her death. She falls — they edge closer. Up again, down again, edge edge. When she goes down for the last time, their toothy heads are nearly upon her. It somehow makes the communal sacrifice of a maiden more understandable — the voracious past must be fed in order to ensure spring, the future.
The Rite was preceded by two other dances in the Joffrey repertoire, in a format that cunningly referred to that of the May, 1913 premiere which opened with two classical ballets, and at the same time the Joffrey presented something actually new. The evening’s opening work was Stanton Welch’s 2012 Son of Chamber Symphony, to the John Adams 2007 music of that title. Stanton Welch may deconstruct ballet, but he makes beautiful dances. Here, he approaches that magic zone where dance and music serve each other equally, inventing gestures and flipping expected sequences to correspond with Adams’ playful structures. The second movement, danced by Victoria Jaini and Fabrice Calmels, was particularly gorgeous.
The same pair made After the Rain, Christopher Wheeldon’s 2005 work, a thing of unforgettable beauty. This is a wonderful, wonderful dance, wise and true and without excess of any kind. To selections of music by Arvo Pärt, three dancer pairs in gray glimmer in a gray world. The very first sequence has them lined up, stage left, one pair behind another, in bent, contorted positions. The women then raise and rotate one leg, circling it in a searching arc, stretching, reaching, some how demanding growth. Upright, the dancers glide and scoop through the gray, doubling and reflecting, becoming lighter and more vivacious before exiting. The lighting changes to that of a clear dawn, a spring dawn, and Jaini and Calmels return in peach-blow leotards. She is tiny; he is tall and broad. Her dark hair, now loosened, flows like a waterfall as she arcs, making the loveliest curves with her fine-boned body. He lifts and carries her again and again; the shapes they make are crisp and sure, even as they appear to be living a dream of love. After he holds her overhead for an impossibly long time, he lowers her gently to the floor where the gray dancers had first stretched their tendril legs, where she arches into a perfect full backbend — and he slips under. Holy Spring, after the rain.