One hundred years ago, an audience came to the theater expecting to see a beautiful ballet, with women in tutus and pointe shoes.
Instead, the performers pounded the floor, playing out the story of a pagan Russian sacrifice and breaking all the rules of dance.
The dancers could barely hear the music over the shrieks and boos in the audience.
Now, one of the most prestigious companies in the country is reviving the performance that shocked the dance world. The Joffrey Ballet will perform “The Rite of Spring” and two new works at 7:30 tonight at Elliott Hall of Music.
Ashley Wheater, the company’s artistic director, said even today, the production can leave patrons walking out shocked.
“I think what’s really interesting about the production we have is that it allows us to understand what was so outrageous 100 years ago,” he said. “And we’ve moved so far forward that it doesn’t seem like anything is outrageous today.”
Part of what creates that original impact, Wheater said, is that the company performs a version of the piece that is as close to the original as possible, with a score by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. That is a signature of the company, he said.
“The Joffrey has always been known for reviving great master works of the 20th century,” Wheater said.
The piece begins in a Russian village, he said, with groups of dancers playing different roles. The dancers are clothed in colorful pieces and tribal-inspired skins as the village prepares to celebrate the earth.
But by the second part, things take a turn. A woman is chosen to dance herself to death as a sacrifice to bring spring back.
That’s when complete physicality takes over, said dancer Derrick Agnoletti.
“It’s like watching someone close up at the end of the marathon,” he said.
Wheater said that is where the shock value comes in. The women dance as hard as the men, even falling flat on their faces. It isn’t the “traditional” ballet with legs raised as high as their heads and 32 turns in a row, he said. Bodies are turned in and contorted.
“You see the company today and what we’re doing in terms of beautiful, beautiful contemporary ballet,” he said. “And you see these beautiful women pounding the floor.”
That can make the audience feel the same discomfort as 100 years ago, Agnoletti said.
“I think the uncomfortableness is a good uncomfortable because that’s the intention of the piece,” he said.
But the deeper importance of that discomfort is reflected in the two modern pieces the company will perform, Agnoletti said.
They will also dance “Age of Innocence,” a piece inspired by Jane Austen novels, and “After the Rain,” which is a tender, loving exploration of modern relationships.
The audience can see the contrast between the older and modern works, Agnoletti said.
But it comes from what “Rite of Spring” changed about dance, Wheater said.
“I think that it wouldn’t have been so varied and so interesting if someone hadn’t broken the mold,” he said.
And the fact that “The Rite of Spring” did break the mold, and still has the power to shock audiences even 100 years later, is why audiences should make sure to see it now, Wheater said.
“It’s about people coming to the ballet, but not coming with an expectation,” he said. “But leaving with a new appreciation.”
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