The NC Symphony will perform a lovely program including Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring tonight and Saturday night in Raleigh. I heard it last night in UNC’s Memorial Hall, where I’ve heard MANY versions of The Rite over the last several months. This one is among the finest. Read my review in The News & Observer here.
Martha Graham herself was my introduction to modern dance, when I was so fortunate as to see her perform during her 1967 tour. So I have a special place in my heart for the Martha Graham Company, which on April 26 and 27 closed Carolina Performing Arts’ spectacular season examining Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the centennial of that stunning music and its associated choreography and design. The company, now in its 87th season, has survived several near-death experiences and more recently, the lost of many of its costumes and sets to Hurricane Sandy, but I’m happy to report that the dancing is still sublime.
Graham died in 1991, but her technique with all its emotional power and soulful force is very much alive. Many of her dances have been preserved or reconstructed and remain in the repertory of the company, now led by former Graham dancer Janet Eilber. The program both nights featured work from the 1940s and 1950s, including Errand, pictured above, as well as Graham’s own Rite, but the biggest thrill was Rust, a work by the great Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato commissioned by CPA for the Martha Graham Company, that had its world premiere in Memorial Hall on the 26th.
One tends to think of the women when thinking about Martha Graham dances, but Rust is set on the company’s men, and exploits both their physical power and their access to their own deep vulnerability. Set to music by Arvo Pärt (from his De Profundis), sung by the men of the Carolina Choir and UNC Chamber Singers, with additional music (strange noises, increasingly threatening) by Pedro Alcalde, Rust is deeply shocking. It’s about torture.
The aestheticization of any kind of violence is deeply disturbing–but how else do you get people to face up to something like torture of captives? Rust was hard to watch, but impossible to turn away from. The horror, the bleak horror, the imagined terror, the pain, the blinding lights–when they turn on the audience, slowly, slowly raking across our dialted pupils, we know: This could happen to us. To me. Any time. First suffering, then ignominious death. For something or for nothing.
The brutality of the blows on the beautiful body of Lloyd Knight (center, above photo) was only heightened by Rust immediately following the little confection of Moon (Graham, 1952), which was danced by Knight and guest artist Wendy Whelan from the New York City Ballet. It was fascinating to watch a ballerina dance Graham. Whelan does not at any time seem rooted to earth. She is ethereal, floating just above the ground, even while lying upon it. I don’t think this would work too well in many of Graham’s dances, but it was gorgeous to watch in Moon. It was as if the dark-skinned Knight was earth and gravity both, while Whelan was the shimmering moon, always distant but never leaving. Although CPA has not formally announced its line-up for next season, the word is that Whelan will be returning with a project of her own.
The final dance both nights was Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1984–when she was 90. Graham had danced the role of The Chosen One in a 1930 revival of Leonid Massine’s choreography, which had supplanted Nijinsky’s in the Ballets Russes’ repertoire after Nijinksy infuriated impresario Diaghilev by running off and getting married–to a woman! Massine’s work has mercifully faded into the historical background. Graham’s version–funded by fashion designer Halston, with costumes by Halston–varies considerably from the earlier models. Graham focused on the Shaman and the Chosen One, and brought a holiness to the sacrifice that is glaringly absent in most versions before or since. Ben Schultz as the Shaman was by turns magisterial, tender, heroic, and implacable as he brought the poor girl to acceptance of her fate in a succession of amazingly visualized scenes. He captures her in his cloak; he binds her with rope; he throws her over his shoulders like a lamb being taken to the altar; he raises her on his shoulders to a celestial position; he wraps her in the endless reel of renewing earth. On the 26th , the Chosen One was danced with aching beauty by Xiaochuan Xie, who is about half the size of the towering Schultz. On the 27th, she was performed by Blakeley White-McGuire, whose vivid life-force made the sacrifice all the more poignant.
Saturday’s program also included a brighter Spring: the wonderfully buoyant Appalachian Spring, set to Aaron Copland’s music, with set designed by Isamu Noguchi. The trio’s contribution to the war effort (oh, that last “great” war), it premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944. Perhaps Graham’s best known work, it bolsters the spirit today just as it did then. The picture says it all.
“This is the program I’ve been most nervous about in the last three years, and it means the most to me,” said Emil Kang in his slightly giddy introduction to the world premiere performance in Memorial Hall April 12.
Coming up was the final of the artist projects that Carolina Performing Arts commissioned as part of its season and year-long “The Rite of Spring at One Hundred” series. Basil Twist, the renowned puppeteer (for lack of a better word), was about to present his puppet ballet set to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s was already in the pit; the house was packed and buzzing with anticipation. Kang was nervous–but he would have already known how completely marvelous the work is.
Basil Twist’s The Rite of Spring is a total work of art, an enchanted place/time of power and mystery, and it fills the viewer with amazed delight, foreboding, tenderness and a host of other responses. The experience of the stage action is not separable from the music rising from the orchestra, made by people you can’t see but whose warm humanity you feel acutely in contrast to the abstract dance of forces and objects on the cooly lit stage. (There are people–the puppeteers carrying out the magic–but they are dressed and shrouded in black, and barely register in the image.) When a live human dancer appears to dance the Chosen One’s “dance to the death” section, it tears at your heart. He’s so alive. You feel a huge rush of awe at the human body, how beautiful it is, how marvelous in all its joint and muscle. It is impossible to make this sacrifice abstract. A human will die. And, Twist has come up with a brilliant solution to express that moment–and, I think, to say something about how it is not only social ritual that snares us, but larger, ineluctable, forces.
This Rite goes so far beyond object theater that I don’t know what better to call it than ballet. But it is also painting and sculpture and architecture and projected image in addition to puppetry and dance. Twist’s definition of puppetry is completely open-ended: a puppet can be anything that can be animated, that is, given the life through movement. For The Rite, he animates the atmosphere, giving appearance to the motion of the air with smoke and billowing silk. I may be a little biased about how fantastic this was, because I love cloth so much, but to see so much glowing silken cloth hanging from the flies to the floor was wonderful. The curtain rises on–another curtain, this one hanging straight and flat. Suddenly brought to life with light and released, it falls in sensuous motion with a slight hiss. Behind is another…and another…I lost track–there are several. I couldn’t count and look at the same time–I went into pure sensory mode. I’m going to try to write on this again, when the verbal part of my brain returns from this image land.
The show opens with two enjoyable and rather different works, to Stravinsky’s Fireworks, Op. 4, and the Pulchinella Suite. They are charming in themselves, but also lead the viewer down the road toward the new world to be encountered in The Rite. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s sounded wonderful; a small part of my brain was available to note how different they sounded from the Mariinsky, and that warm, softer-edged sound suited Twist’s dance very well.
The program repeats tonight, Saturday, April 13. If you are in the area, I suggest going. This chance won’t come again. Tickets at http://www.carolinaperformingarts.org
On a local note: Quite a few local puppeteers, object theatre artists and suchlike are involved in this production. To my surprise when I read the program, I saw the name Sarah Howe–who I know slightly because she sells her pottery at the Durham Farmers Market each Saturday. She was there today, looking electrified. Not only had she worked the performance, she had gone to Chapel Hill and back in her beta-test model ELF–a bicycle vehicle made in Durham.
Aren’t people wonderful?