With the wild tales of seats being torn off by respectable ladies and smacked on famous heads in response to Stravinsky’s score, the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) on May 29, 1913 has risen to the status of dance folklore. On Wednesday, exactly 100 years after that fateful day, le tout Paris converged again on the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to celebrate the event with a two-for-one Rite bill from the Mariinsky Ballet, both excellently conducted by Valery Gergiev.
Where the succès de scandale leaves the dance itself, however, is a pressing problem in performance. The evening started with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer’s 1987 reconstruction of Nijinsky’s lost choreography and, in the hands of the Mariinsky, it is one for the museum shelves. The production provides important visual clues to the feel of the original, but there is little life left in the primitive pounding of the steps as we know them today. Under heavy make-up and elaborate Russian peasant costumes, the dancers seemed altogether detached, plagued by spacing and timing issues, despite the piercing, wide-eyed presence of Daria Pavlenko as the Chosen One.
The Rite came back with a welcome vengeance after the interval, however, in a brand new version by German choreographer Sasha Waltz. The odds weren’t exactly in her favour: the commission had come from the Champs-Elysées rather than the Mariinsky, which is hardly a haven of contemporary creations, and Waltz herself took some convincing (the shadow of her Tanztheater colleague Pina Bausch’s Rite loomed large). Indeed, references to Pina abound: dancers with loose hair, tunics in earth tones, a heap of black dust they scatter with their bare feet, and feverish, expressionistic tremors that possess every last body.
Waltz clearly doesn’t strive for a radically new perspective with her Sacre, but it is a finely drawn, complex choreographic composition, in some ways more classical than Nijinsky’s or Bausch’s. Her community is an organic, musical whole, a living organism that seems to divide up into smaller bas-reliefs and regroup at will, as it does in a heaving, tangled sexual ritual midway through. Pliant pas de deux, where bodies seem to merge into malleable Greek sculptures, alternate with thrusting violence. The cycle of life is ever present: one of the main male figures bends to listen to a woman’s abdomens as if for a heartbeat, and two children appear, only to imitate the adults’ gestures.
And Waltz’s work clearly resonates with the Mariinsky dancers. Their impossibly lithe lines and quasi-alien beauty find harrowing new expression in this Rite: the softness of the women’s arms as they open and close their palms is reminiscent of Nijinsky’s folkloric influences, while their slender legs etch out the steps as if in marble, darting out menacingly or dangling as they are held aloft by the men, like so many potential victims on a cross. The Chosen One emerges very late, one of a number of women singled out by the group, and on Wednesday it was the prodigious Ekaterina Kondaurova who danced to her death as a long dagger slowly descended from the ceiling to seal her fate. This Rite may be the first important contemporary dance creation for the Mariinsky, and that’s cause for celebration enough in this centenary.