Rite, It is still Spring: NC Symphony’s Impressive Program

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.

Grant Llewellyn in action. Music director of the NC Symphony, he conducts this weekend's fine program.

Grant Llewellyn in action. Music director of the NC Symphony, he conducts this weekend’s fine program, which includes a ravishing interpretation of Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, as well as a dynamite playing of The Rite of Spring. Photo: NC Symphony.

Martha Graham Company closes super-season at Carolina Performing Arts

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham's Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand, in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

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.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato's RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato’s RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Near the end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

Near the corrosive end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

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.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

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.

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

SPRING TRAINING through April 28, and no, it is not baseball

PlayMakers Repertory Company is wrapping up an intense year with a fascinating PRCpresentation by the theatrical troupe Universes, in the Kenan Theatre. April 24 saw the world premiere of Spring Training, co-commissioned by PRC and Carolina Performing Arts as part of The Rite of Spring at One Hundred project. Since Universes is neither a dance company, a traditional theater company nor a traditional music ensemble, but a group that uses theatricality to fuse poetry and politics with mouth and body music, the result of their investigation of The Rite of Spring is quite different from any we’ve seen or heard during this extended Spring season. Chay Yew, artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, guided and directed this production.

The troupe Universes, at PRC2 through April 28, with the commissioned work SPRING TRAINING. Photo courtesy PRC.

The troupe Universes, at PRC2 through April 28, with the commissioned work SPRING TRAINING. Photo courtesy PRC.

Spring Training opens with the well-known notes played by the bassoon–but here sung by Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, as her cohorts commence creating a layered set of rhythms. The music they make with vocalizations and body-beats is fantastic, and the complex rhythms and counter-rhythms are quite Stravinsky-esque. For a few moments, it seems that this will be a musical performance. But soon the stories begin, and four characters appear from the words. They do not initially seem connected, except by the tissue of rhythm and chorus in which they nestle, but commonalities emerge. They are stories of people struggling in the the spring of their lives, and reflecting on that “spring training” in their latter days. In each story, there is something about community, and something about wisdom from the elders. And in each story, there is death.

One notable thing among the many that set this Rite apart is the absence of the idea of sacrifice. In the original Stravinsky/Nijinsky/Roerich music/ballet/visualization, and in most of the subsequent dance versions, the Chosen One is sacrificed by the community for its ongoing good, and she acquiesces in that, as it is her community, too. In Spring Training, death is not so methodical or purposeful. A random drive-by shooting has no renewing effect. In one story, a man tries to get his family to safety when a riot breaks out in his own neighborhood. His car is stopped by the mob; he proves his solidarity by shouting out “let the motherfucker BURN” and they let him pass. This soundeth not like springtime, pagan or otherwise.

Shifting the focus toward the individuals within the community–to each of us dancing to the death–and the painful acquisition of wisdom while surviving life really flips The Rite around. I’ve lost track of how many versions I’ve seen and heard since the inception of CPA’s project last September, but none of them has made me so completely reconsider the whole matter. Now that’s art.

Spring Training continues in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Chapel Hill, only through April 28 (two shows on Sunday). This is the small theatre–reservations recommended. http://www.playmakersrep.org

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