Could it be that choreographer Wayne McGregor choked in the face of the Rite of Spring challenge?
By Janine Parker
The “riot” that broke out in the audience at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Elysées during the 1913 premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is the stuff of delicious legend. On one side were the champions of the composer Igor Stravinsky and his collaborator, the dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Their supporters argued that these two Russian artists, working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, were leaders of a vanguard that could save ballet from what some saw as a descent into vapidity. The opposing team, however, was appalled at the disorienting movements (what were those ballet dancers doing turning their toes inward and stomping about the stage?) and the (to their ears) equally bewildering sounds coming out of the orchestra. Hard to imagine how trippy that spectacle was today. These were the bourgeois dramatized by Marcel Proust: Tuxedoed men, women draped in the latest fashionable decadences, arbiters of taste and manners … shouting at each other, shouting over each other — and yelling over the music. Indeed, Nijinsky ended up shouting too. The story has it he stood on a stool in the stage wings, desperately trying to keep his dancers on track by yelling out the counts. (The fact that Sacre’s meters are all over the map didn’t help.)
This so-called scandal, rather than discouraging others from creating their own versions of Sacre, generated a siren’s call. In September, the late Pina Bausch’s now-iconic 1984 Rite of Spring was presented at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Earlier this week during the end of its regular dance season, American Ballet Theatre presented the world premiere of Wayne McGregor’s version of Rite, which he’s titled AFTERITE, at the Metropolitan Opera House. These are but two among dozens of professionally choreographed versions of the work produced in the century-plus since its premiere. While Rite‘s original choreography was “lost” in the years following the production’s initial run of nine performances, the score survives as not only one of the most important breakthroughs in modern music, but also as a still-relevant and bracingly challenging work of art, one that obviously remains irresistible to many dancemakers. (The ABT orchestra, conducted by Ormsby Wilkins in AFTERITE and by Charles Barker in Alexei Ratmansky’s program opener Firebird, performed the two Stravinsky pieces with a thrilling mix of subtlety and crashing intensity.)
McGregor is one of today’s A-list contemporary ballet choreographers. He’s the resident choreographer at London’s Royal Ballet and his ballets have been performed by other classical companies, including our own Boston Ballet. His movement style is marked by a charged physicality. Though clearly situated in the centuries-old ballet vocabulary, those positions and steps are flung out with an inscrutable moodiness—now nonchalant, now defiant— that resonates with a kind of ultramodern chic. The ubiquitous hyper-flexibility of today’s dancers is relentlessly tested—legs are often hiked well past classically-placed extensions while dancers’ spines seem to roll and curve sinuously like serpents, with the faint sense that they could fatally strike at any time. Often, these movements are visually sumptuous: gorgeous fluidity conveyed by gorgeously fluid bodies. But, occasionally, the “more” is too much. The umpteenth time a dancer coolly throws his or her leg over his/her shoulder reads less like thematic movement and more like repetitious (and sometimes even obnoxious) filler.
Similar tensions appear in McGregor’s pas de deux, which are often male/female. (Though his Obsidian Tear, a co-commission between the Boston Ballet and The Royal Ballet, which premiered locally in November, features an all-male cast.) Again, his choreography is often rich and inventive, but it is intermittently marred by cynical, misogynistic tropes that suggest abuse. Women are roughly tossed, dragged, or pulled; or there is an imbalance, with females rarely sharing the work of the partnering or manipulating the males. I don’t think McGregor is as a rule hostile to women; the majority of his partnering is not problematic. But, unless this kind of movement is being used to tell an important story (about a difficult relationship, for instance), the abusive-looking partnering is both tedious and questionable.
Still, despite this reservation, McGregor’s duets are also often deeply, and quite beautifully, sensual. I like that the movement in these moments is unmistakably sexual but never stupidly so. That is, two dancers may be clearly coupling, but they aren’t humping. It’s highly artistic eroticism, and the biggest (and loveliest) surprise is that this exploration of physical intimacy can also be quite tender; otherwise, it would be coarse, balleticized pornography and, to my mind, just more evidence of misogyny.
These edgy conflicts in McGregor’s approach keep me interested. Yes, physically he sometimes goes far over the top, but it is exhilarating that he dares to go there. (In the same way that those Parisians in 1913 cared so much about pushing dance and music forward that they dropped their politesse and got down and dirty.) McGregor’s ultra-baroque flair, its immoderate athleticism and emotionality, matched with Stravinsky’s extremity of meter, phrasing, and dynamics, promised a rollicking ride. Alas, whereas Nijinsky’s Sacre delivered an outrageous bang, McGregor’s version lands with a curiously unexceptional whimper.
Aggravating matters was that what should have been good programming — two Stravinsky ballets — turned out to be a head-scratching miscalculation. The program’s opening ballet, Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, is an often cartoonish ballet that should appeal to children.(I got in line behind a large group of elementary school kids who may have been on a field trip.) But what were the kids supposed to make of McGregor’s determinedly dystopic AFTERITE? (About two-thirds of the way through the performance I attended I saw a woman hustling up the aisle with a small child in her arms.)
In the original version, the rite was (vaguely) set among an ancient civilization’s tribe. This new production seemed to be taking place at the end of the world, what with its “last colony of mankind” atmospherics. McGregor and his production team have created a chilling dystopia, one in which, surprise, surprise, authoritarian surveillance is out in the open and brutal inhumanity is casual. Lucy Carter’s lighting design is, as in her other McGregor works, striking without seeming gimmicky: thin vertical strips of stark white light pan back and forth across the backdrop; a horizontal line of cold bright dots descend down the space. An orb appears, its uncertain purpose—is it a sun? a moon? a composite?—lending the visuals a beautiful yet menacing beauty. A large set piece from Vicki Mortimer occupies upstage right; a “glass”-walled cube with sliding doors. It looks like a blandly corporate space — ‘warmed up’ by a couple of indoor plants.
It’s all very handsome, and the formidable cast of thirteen dancers (two children from ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school also appear in non-dancing roles) seemed invested. But McGregor’s choreography turns out to be uncharacteristically watery. The dancers are not particularly challenged; instead of the customary cascade of deep undulations, they often just looked limp. And then there were the members of the group who marched about with robotic coldness, a conceit that quickly became tiresome. (I found myself wishing for the technicolor shock of McGregor’s usual stock of physical contortions.)
Perhaps the decision to tell the story as futuristic nightmare got in McGregor’s way. AFTERITE echoes aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale and Sophie’s Choice; perhaps he was trying to dramatize how the denizens of this last colony were drained of their life energy and ability to hope. I have no quarrel with this pessimism; indeed, I find it a potentially illuminating way to dramatize Stravinsky’s often apocalyptic-sounding score. The catch is that the work’s dancing too often looked washed-out, particularly given the music’s vigorous dynamics.
Yes, even inspired artists make mediocre work on occasion. Still, I’m confounded by AFTERITE — from what I’ve seen of McGregor’s previous dances this project would seem to be the perfect set up for a home run. Could it be that the choreographer choked in the face of the Sacre challenge? In any event, instead of taking a huge passionate swing at what this masterpiece serves up, McGregor watched the balls fly past. It happens.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.