Piecing together "The Rite of Spring" was "a great and complicated detective story," says Millicent Hodson, a choreographer and artist, who with historian and scenic consultant Kenneth Archer painstakingly reconstructed one of the ballet world's most celebrated lost works.
Their herculean feat employed countless sources: prompt books, contemporary sketches, paintings, photographs, reviews, original costume designs, annotated scores and interviews with knowledgeable witnesses such as Dame Marie Rambert, assistant to the ballet's choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky.
Presented for the first time by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, Hodson and Archer's "Rite" was an instant sensation. "The ballet in the flesh exceeds every sensational claim in its dossier," said an adoring review in the Christian Science Monitor.
That triumph was 16 years in the making, the result of a chance 1971 meeting between company founder Robert Joffrey and Hodson, who was then a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where the company was in residence.
"He would come and see me every evening after the show," Hodson recalled. "He told me about conversations he'd had with Rambert in the 1950s about ('Rite'). He was fascinated with the work. I told him I had this dream of trying to recreate the ballet. He said, 'That's a very exciting idea and you have to call me when you're ready.'"
But getting ready was a supreme challenge. No attempt had been made to save the choreography or Nicholas Roerich's costumes and sets for the Ballets Russes production of "The Rite of Spring" after its nine performances in Paris and London the year before World War I.
Perhaps that neglect had less to do with the ballet's tumultuous premiere than with the souring relationship between Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, who ran the Ballets Russes and was involved romantically with the choreographer. Nijinsky's marriage to Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky led to his dismissal from Diaghilev's company. His mental health deteriorated quickly, and by 1917 he was unable to dance or choreograph. He was institutionalized for much of the rest of his life.
Nijinsky's and Roerich's work on "Rite" "were cast to the winds," Archer said.
Still, there were plenty of tantalizing fragments, including many reviews, Stravinsky's note- and sketch-filled rehearsal score, another score marked by a choreographic assistant, three backstage photos and a letter written much later by Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava Nijinska. She had rehearsed the role of the Chosen One, a sacrificial maiden, but was forced to drop out because she became pregnant.
Hodson scoured Europe for more material. Eventually she was joined by a similarly obsessed art historian, Englishman Kenneth Archer, who was doing research on Roerich. They combined their work, got married, and continued their quest.
The search for artifacts, such as dancers' footwear, consumed their lives. "We lived in a flat in London with a very long hall," she said. "There were 79 pairs of shoes lined up along that hall."
After several years of research, Hodson published her first ideas about "Rite" in Dance Magazine. Joffrey contacted her quickly. "He said, 'Are you ready yet?' I said, 'Not quite.'"
The pair's scholarly excursions even took them to India in 1983, where they talked to Roerich's son.
"Although he hadn't seen ('Rite'), he was there when the costumes were being painted," Archer said. "He told us about the meanings behind some of the motifs. He said, 'This is a prehistoric bird and in Slavic myth it means this, and this is a fire wheel and they were used in such-and-such a ceremony."
Hodson said she spent much time on the ballet's most important moment: the solo of the Chosen One, who dances herself to death in a primitive ritual.
It's a part that Jodie Gates knows well. The UC Irvine dance professor was one of three Joffrey dancers who performed the role in the 1980s: "It's the last 12 minutes of the work. It's very demanding."
Gates remembers Hodson and Archer's first meeting with the company.
"They came in with mountains of research. But they invited us to help them translate it all into movement. We were their working tools."
Hodson placed images of the Chosen One on the piano during rehearsals.
"She asked us to look at them and imagine what the image would look like if it came alive," Gates said. "With what velocity? How high would you jump? How quickly would you run? It was one of the most challenging things I've ever done, and the most exciting."
Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins [at] ocregister [dot] com
Receive special offer alerts and updates right to your phone!Text joffrey to 366948 to opt into Joffrey Mobile Alerts
© Joffrey Ballet. All rights reserved.