May 29th marks the 96th anniversary of the Ballet Russes premier of “Le Sacre du printemps.” And where Diaghilev’s staged disruptions at that premier in the Theatre des Champs Elysees failed to accomplish its commercial task, the phony “riot” nevertheless informs the fireworks of Nyjinsky’s choreographic “crime against grace.” And for many historians Stravinsky’s score was modern music if not modernism’s “Big Bang.”
Since the premier, however, a riot of recordings and choreographic meditations (and assaults) on the music and the possibilities of its subject matter (the nature of the human relationship to the divine, for example) demonstrate “Sacre’s” timeless appeal. That perennial appeal, however, adds to the creative task the hazard of critical expectation. On the other hand, a reparatory of known choreographic uses of the music including its attendant ‘pictures’ or concepts can promote the artist’s or anyone’s engagement with “Sacre.” The theory is simple: the more one knows the more one gets, no matter where one stands.
As part of their Ballet Russes celebration the Boston Ballet premiered on May 17, 2009, Yorma Elo’s “Le Sacre du printemps.” It is set on eight each male and female dancers and all are costumed in red- the shirtless men in long trousers and ladies in tutu tops adorned with a mere whiff of skirt that bulged out and over the back of their hips. But, one male wore a sleeveless, black smudged red top, which matched his trousers. It distinguished him from the group.
It is this lone male figure in abject pose silhouetted against a line of fire- real fire- that greets the audience at curtain rise. The scene depicts, one thinks, a person in hellish darkness and relentless despair. In fact, neither spring nor divinity, nor divinity’s promise, nor the price of that promise ever appears in this “Sacre.” Elo, instead, takes his viewers into a secular world where horrific contingencies beg explication. The fire, the perpetual darkness of its lighting, the shaded group dances, and the red costumes describe a “No Exit” world forever bereft of spring and where all humans are victims. It is as if Elo means to illustrate Sartre’s words, “Hell is other people.” And while Elo’s narrative overlay differs substantially from the one held in the score, the sounds of the Introduction’s waking birds nevertheless seem to materialize in the bird-like movement of the choreography. Here one saw bodies that rippled from leg through neck, isolated and jerky movements of the head and limbs, and the general awkwardness displayed by naturally airy beings compelled by Darwinian imperative to negotiate the rough ground and the mystery of each other.
The theory is simple; the more one knows the more one gets. So, where does Elo’s piece mean to take its viewers? One asked him. The narrative overlay (‘overlay’- because this work does not retell the incident) of Elo’s piece refers to a school shooting that took place on September 23, 2008 at a community college in Kauhajoki, Finland. The shooter, Matti Saari, 22, hated the human race. He was a culinary arts student at the college; and on September 23, he walked into a test taking class and shot all that were in the room. The victims included eight female students, one male professor, and one male student- a friend of his. He set the room ablaze. The fired burned some of the victims beyond recognition. During the incident he expended 200 rounds of ammunition. He shot himself and later died of his wound in a hospital. Crime. Bang. Fireworks. Graceless.
Because of this conversation Elo’s piece for this viewer snapped into comprehensibility. The human gestures and relationships, for example, that looked ordinary were ordinary. Additionally, the ladies that bourreed across the stage a la Act II of “Giselle” in “Sacre’s” Introduction can (now) plausibly be taken as foreshadowing. Moreover, one could then see, even if in disbelief, that all were killed and that a suicide took place. And, in the silence that followed the Danse Sacral one, along with Elo, asked, “What sacred or secular purpose did this “sacrifice” serve? What brought this terrible deed?” The piece answers with silence. And in the silence of the final tableaux, the curtain as if drawn down by the weight of his sin and his gathered victims’ telling gestures slowly crushed the lone male. So, even in the world of contemporary ballet where all works seem to be some sort of Rorschach test, one may nevertheless when properly aided trust one’s senses when viewing such works. Why, then, wasn’t Elo’s reference included in the program? Even if limited to a cast of characters. After all, the theory is simple: the more one knows the more one gets.
Yet out of this dark and darkly lit work, where shadowy groups of dancers whispered secret gestures, bright spots of light would highlight the linear vigor and jointless flexibility of soloists such as Melissa Hough. And too, the intuitive Hough shared with her cast mates an untroubled care that easily phased the separate waves of music and choreography into synchronic balance. The dancers thereby reckoned the music’s ever-changing time signatures and its choreographic resonance’s, such as its ever-changing combinations of groups, patterns, sweeps, and rapid exits and entrances by breath and sense rather than counting.
Musicians, in contrast, must count. Yet, in its sonic affect, “Sacre” whether in spite of or due to its bewildering array of time-signature changes constitutes a la Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner et al what human engagement with the world sounds like. As in Joyce or Woolf, one takes Stravinsky’s “Pictures of Pagan Russia” as a sonic journey that periodically switches between and conflates the first and third person point view. For this play on the human feel of time to work, the piece must be performed correctly, i.e. counted. One may count, however, as does the soul denying Stravinsky and the unbending tempos that he visits on “Sacre,” or as does the soul confirming Leonard Bernstein whose liberty with tempos frees the passion and hence the humanity in the score. And as Bernstein does so too for conductor Jonathan McFee and the Boston Ballet orchestra, here Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps, Pictures of Pagan Russia” was in fact a sonic journey chronicled in mixed points of view that showed humans engaged in the inexhaustible wonder of life.