STRAVINSKY Le Sacre du printemps.1 L’Oiseau de feu2 & • Valery Gergiev, cond; 1Alexandra Iosifidi (L’Élue); 1Elena Bazhenova (Old Woman); Vladimir Ponomarev (1The Sage,Read more2Kastchei); 2Ekaterina Kondaurova (Firebird); 2Ilya Kuznetsov (Ivan Tsarévitch); 2Marianna Pavlova (Princess); Mariinsky Theater O • BEL AIR 241 (85:00 Text and Translation) Live: St. Petersburg 6/2008
& Bonus: Documentary on Ballets Russes; Interviews with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer
Some videos are a chore to review, particularly of conductors who posture and prance around the podium. You wonder how much of their act is for the audience or the camera, and to what end it justifies sitting through it all more than once. But others are an unalloyed joy to review, and this was one such.
Dance historian Kenneth Archer and choreographer Millicent Hodson began reconstructing Nijinsky’s original choreography for Le Sacre du printemps back in the late 1970s, based on some documents found by the latter. Their search continued for several years, and first involved tracking down a score of the ballet in which one of the corps dancers, Marie Rambert (who was in love with Nijinsky but, as soon as he got married to someone else, left while the Ballets Russe was on tour in South America), had marked steps she remembered into the score. It then continued on to the old Soviet Union, where they had to determine which of the various Sacre costumes were from the 1913 original production. The Soviets were convinced the female corps was dressed in white throughout the ballet, due to the black and white photographs they had and the costumes that had survived, and were surprised that there were colored costumes at all in the work! Archer and Hodgson were, happily, aided again by Marie Rambert—in her 90s at the time—who remembered clearly what had been done and had taken notes and drawings on and of the steps, staging, and costuming for Sacre, as well as by the son of stage designer Nicholas Roerich, an artist living in India, who was able to tell them which of the drawings of stage costumes were done originally by what artists just by viewing the direction of the brush strokes! All of this led, originally, to the revival of the Nijinsky choreography for Sacre that was staged by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987. I remember that production—in fact, I have it on VHS (with the Orchestra of the National Theater of Prague conducted by Alan Lewis), and I’m glad I do because I’ve never seen it since. It left an indelible impression on me with its almost savage earthiness, different even from the few modern productions of Sacre I had seen.
This one is even better, in part because the dancers nowadays are more comfortable with the strange and unusual movements of the Nijinsky choreography. As Hodson explains in the fascinating dual interview with Archer, Nijinsky essentially created an entirely new form of ballet, using steps and movements he had learned from the classics but reinventing them in new ways. The corps was no longer a body of dancers moving as one unit, first in one direction and then another, but a collection of individuals, all interacting as individuals, and the dancers’ eyes—not just when they looked up or down—were the key to their movement. Some details of classical ballet were retained, but not many. The dancers usually turned their toes in towards each other, in direct opposition to classical ballet, and with the sole exception of the chosen sacrificial woman, no one really had solos, and even hers were essentially of a wild, anti-virtuosic nature. Nijinsky’s choreography, then, was all about kinetic movement. With no “star turns,” everyone was important in his or her own way, and as a group they created an almost centrifugal force through their movements that kept bringing the energy to center—to the earth.
In the performance footage, however, Sacre is preceded by The Firebird, again in its original choreography. This was much easier to reconstruct, because it was done by Michael Fokine and so was much focused on traditional ballet. Yet in watching it, the “traditional” elements are almost always rather different from what one is used to. True, there are intricate and difficult turns for the soloists (the Firebird, Prince Ivan, and the Princess), but the choreography, like the music, keeps on moving, keeps on flowing. There aren’t any real “solo turns” in the sense that the action stops while premier dancer A or prima ballerina B comes out and do variations in front, flying across the stage in endless jetées, pirouettes, etc. that have no meaning other than to dazzle the viewer, while the corps just sits there like part of the audience. Firebird is a continuous story, with continuous music; it is opera without the big show-stopping arias and cabalettas, a new form. From the moment when the Firebird re-enters to break the spell of the evil Kastchei to the moment when Prince Ivan smashes the magic egg at Kastchei’s feet, there is continuous movement in which soloists and the corps interact and, essentially, never stop moving. An entirely new style of ballet had taken its first steps forward.
Within this exceptional choreography, one must of course praise the outstanding work of Kondaurova as the Firebird, whose leg extensions are as perfect as those of Margot Fonteyn, whether she holds them for two seconds or six, and who has greater exuberance; of Kuznetsov as the Prince, technically fluid as well as an exceptionally good stage actor; and of Pavlova as the Princess, a stunning presence onstage whose flawless grace and deceptive way of making her choreography look easy take one’s breath away. After the smashing of the egg, the stage goes black. Of course, this introduces the connective music between that and the last scene, where the spell is broken, but the Mariinsky audience goes crazy, applauding while the music is playing. This didn’t particularly thrill me, but it’s completely understandable; they had just seen some of the greatest dancing of their lives. Thirty years of dancers being involved in more and more modern dance has indeed improved dancing as a whole, and when such dancers then return to the classics—even a late classic like L’Oiseau de feu—they bring that plasticity of movement and easy grace backwards in time (so to speak) and inform earlier ballets with that kind of movement.
I’m not sure if the performance took place this way in the theater, but immediately following the last drop of applause for Firebird, Gergiev raises his baton and gives the downbeat for Sacre. Here we are, 100 years after the premiere, and this is still the most revolutionary ballet—as well as the most difficult—in history. Even here, with highly skilled and trained dancers who have had many hours of rehearsal, the dancers are still looking to Gergiev and each other for visual cues as to the rhythm. With the exception of the fact that small groups of female dancers in the first half walk across the stage on demi-pointe, absolutely none of the moves in Sacre relate to classical ballet. In fact, they only superficially relate to Russian folk dance. Most of it looks, in fact, like gymnastics of a particularly wild and almost chaotic order, particularly after the blind sage enters, bows down, and kisses the ground. Male dancers move about the stage, gesticulating wildly with their hands, in an almost frenzied state of hyper-excitement. (During the bonus interview, Hodson mentions the peculiarity of Sacre’s first run: audiences did not just boo and jeer the opening night, but every single performance, and it never let up.)
The second half, “The Sacrifice,” focuses almost exclusively on the women, now moving around in odd circles with their toes pointed inward, an exceptionally awkward stance for anyone to dance. Occasional overhead shots, both here and in the first half, illustrate how the circles and semicircles they create, moving in towards each other and back out again, are eerily prescient of Busby Berkeley. When the virgin begins her “dance of death,” all the rules are thrown out the window. She alternates leaping straight up, bending her legs at the knee while in the air in the manner of someone doing double-dutch jump rope routine, with a spasmodic twitching of her entire body and strange, angular movements in and out with her feet while on the floor.
Following my viewing of this performance, I went back and watched part of the Joffrey Ballet performance from 1987. There were several differences: much brighter stage lighting, costumes in black and white, cream or light brown instead of bright colors (Hodson explains how they had to convince the Russians that just because the 1913 photos were in black and white, it didn’t mean the original costumes were only black and white), and the dancers moving much more like a “standard” ballet company. By contrast, the Mariinsky performance on this DVD is much more angular, with much less of the “flow” of a conventional ballet; but as I said, an additional 25 years of dancers doing more and more modern dance has made our present-day dancers much more attuned to the strangeness of Nijinsky’s choreography. (There are also little differences here and there in that respect—places where the Joffrey dancers stay still where the Mariinsky dancers kept moving—so it’s obvious that Archer and Hodson have rethought their concept). The bacchanale in particular is much less frenzied in the 1987 production. But perhaps the Joffrey performance is closer, except for the costumes, to what audiences saw in 1913; after all, the Ballets Russes dancers were classically trained, and therefore not necessarily accustomed with what Nijinsky wanted them to do.
These are the kinds of interesting questions in art that intrigue me, and which keep interest alive over the years. Even taking the basic concept of the 1987 performance as a matrix, one can project all kinds of things from Nijinsky’s concept onto what we are trying to do in modern dance today. Le Sacre du printemps is still the blueprint for all modern dance, and in some ways we have yet to exploit everything that Nijinsky put into that astonishing work.
Le sacre du printempsby Igor Stravinsky Conductor:
St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1911-1913
Firebirdby Igor Stravinsky Conductor:
St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: Russia
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
Wonderful ProductionsDecember 18, 2013By Joe S. See All My Reviews"There is a recurring theme in the arts that if you try and reconstruct something ancient using modern resources, you end up with something new entirely. By trying to recreate the experience of ancient Greek theater, both opera and the music of Harry Partch emerged. Neither got the original experience perfectly right, but instead created something new with their resources. The same thing happened when Stravinsky and Nijinsky tried to recreate the experience of the inhabitants of ancient Russia. They certainly didnt recreate it exactly, but what we got out of it was The Rite of Spring, one of the greatest ballets ever. The Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballets performances of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring on DVD is a great performance that highlights a similar process that went into these works reconstruction. With no video documentation of the original productions, the choreography was painstakingly reconstructed from sketches, diaries, and reviews of the original productions. The process of reviving these works parallel their artistic inception. As someone who has more familiarity with Stravinskys music, the choreography especially stood out. While Stravinskys music on its own can be a freewheeling beast in the concert hall, the performances and the interviews on this DVD reiterate that the choreography was what really elicited the violent, riotous reaction from the audience. The music projected very well on TV speakersI could hear the winds very clearly and that was really great for me. If youre familiar with the Firebird suite, you might get thrown off by the pacing of the themes in the unabridged work, but overall its still quite enjoyable even if youre just listening and not watching. From the choreography side, if youre looking for a DVD for your 4-year-old daughter who likes ballerinas to watch, this is not the thing to get. While there are some traditional Swan-Lakey kinds of gesturing, especially in Firebird, a lot of the dancing is angular, gyrating, almost-epileptic movement. Dont get me wrong, its AWESOME, but its not traditional. I was in awe at the physicality of these dancers, especially of the crotchety yet powerful King Katschei in Firebird. There are some flubs that make it into the final cuts of these performances, like an apple being dropped on the stage that gets in the dancers way during Firebird, but chalking them up to the variability and excitement of live performance, you can easily get past it. The supplemental material, including interviews with the artistic team that mounted the production, is informative and not overly long. This material focuses on the choreography, and not so much on Stravinskys compositional process, but its still a great resource for musicians, dancers, and amateurs alike."Report Abuse
StunningOctober 2, 2013By Robert Elden (New York, NY)See All My Reviews"Stunning and brilliant performances from all involved in every aspect of these performances. Truly, a revelation not to be missed. Maestro Gergiev's interpretations of Stravinsky's music are indeed magical and should be the decisive benchmark for all time."Report Abuse