Dynasty: 'Les Noces,' 'L’Apres-midi d’un Faune,' 'Le Sacre du Printemps'
June 19, 2003 --
Flint Center, Cupertino, California
More than 35 years
have passed since I last saw a performance by the Robert Joffrey Ballet
Company. I was remembering a summer’s night that turned rainy in the mid-sixties
when I saw the premiere of a revolutionary piece called “Sea Shadow,”
in Central Park. I lost a contact lens in the rain, and remember taking
the subway home to the Bronx, determined to use just one eye as a resource
for committing the piece to memory. In the years to come, high school
classmates of mine would join the company, and as an adult, I would study
with its former ballet master. Through its trials, tribulations and incarnations,
I continued to look upon Joffrey as the perfect expression of what an
American ballet company should be—resting on classical training and tradition
as a springboard for versatility and innovation, with a multi-racial,
Of course, that’s
how I hoped to find the company (“The Company,” by the way, is the name
of the Robert Altman film based on the Joffrey to be released during the
holiday season) as we drove to Cupertino. On this night, there would be
an added personal element. A close friend of my son’s from his apprentice
days at Boston Ballet, a relatively new member of the current company,
Fabrice Calmels, would be dancing. Also, a group of us from CriticalDance
would be the guests of ballet master, Mark Goldweber, at a post-performance
reception for Gerald Arpino, the company’s director and co-founder with
“Les Noces,” by Bronislava Nijinska utilizes the ritual around the wedding
of poor peasants to examine the social impact of marriage upon women,
whose primary role it is to provide the extra pair of hands in an alien
family, and reproduce the labor power necessary to accumulate wealth for
an alien social class. The program notes indicate that Nijinska, when
she saw the costumes that Diaghilev had commissioned for the ballet, even
before it was set, objected to their ornate design, and was essentially
fired from the project on that basis. She was later brought back, and
the costumes we see today are spare white peasant shirts covered with
brown jumpers for the women and leggings for the men.
The piece is presented
in four tableaux: “Benediction of the Bride,” “Benediction of the Bridegroom,”
“Departure of the Bride from the Parental Home,” and “The Wedding Feast.”
A coryphée of women, arms linked to one another, dances a ritual-like
folk dance. They are the bridal party, unsmiling throughout, as the certainty
of peasant life is suddenly disrupted by the uncertain fate of the bride
in the ambit of her new family. A quartet breaks away to mime a rough
approximation of an altar to presage what they expect will be a grim occasion.
The footwork throughout the piece is repetitive and dependent on a carefully
held upper body with no suppleness—so that pelvic and quadriceps muscles
can fire the footwork. The effect is intricate, while conveying that underlying
the festivities is a forced march, a kind of military drill for the women
who soldier the bride (Trinity Hamilton) through a ceremony denoting the
loss of (relative) girlhood freedom. Braids from the bride’s head are
extended to tether the women together like yoked oxen.
The men’s ceremonial dance follows. The implication that it is the missing
piece in a matched set adduces more evidence to confirm the bride’s loss
of self through marriage. This is not “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
Still, compared to the women, the men are vibrant and celebratory as they
rally around the groom (Samuel Pergande) with the slowed leg extensions
from deep grand plié derivative of the famous Kazatsky that is danced
at Russian weddings. The men lean into each other as they perform a simplified
voyagé across the stage to the baritone intonations of the Stravinsky
score. This is their day after all. Then the music suddenly goes free
form and the men begin a series of sautés with bent knees in parallel.
The women send the stricken bride off, with the braid wrapped around her
throat, as the music reaches a keening pitch.
The full company begins a complicated mime involving syncopated arms and
legs as the wedding party assembles above them on a platform to watch.
You feel that the platform mimics a gallows as the dancers bent in the
locus of a crucifix give the stage over to the groom’s solo. Bells ring
in the finale on counts that can only be described as too off-frequency
to memorize. As each bell tolls, the dancers alternately reach up to mime
pulling the ropes in the bell tower. This is done with crystalline precision
to mark the death knell that marriage rings down on the rural poor.
“L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” is a work brought to life by Vaslav Nijinsky,
inspired by the friezes from ancient Greek vases. Debussy’s languid flute
phrases open the piece to a verdant set, capturing the naturalism that
inspired the revolution against courtly artifice in post-Czarist Russia.
Davis Robertson dances the role of The Faun superbly. He so wholly adopts
and internalizes the animus of his character that it is tempting to credit
Stanislavski with the coaching. This is elegantly apparent in the use
of the back to stretch, and the head to respond to sound and motion coming
from the natural setting surrounding the hillock on which he crouches.
We rarely say much about makeup, but The Faun’s succeeds in pointing up
each gesture so that we miss none of it, in spite of the necessary low-beam
lighting. The leader of the nymphs (Deborah Dawn), and the nymphs, intercede
in his world to offer Hellenic-inspired profiles of women with traditional
arm poses. They barely disturb the quiet mood, and help us notice it more
keenly. If this is the school that set Isadora Duncan on her course, it
is easy to see why. It is a focal homage to the natural world, deftly
centered in the program, book-ended by two energetic works.
The evening’s final offering, “Le Sacre du Printemps,” is Vaslav’s Nijinsky’s
tribute to pagan Russia, reconstructed and restaged by Millicent Hodson,
décor and costumes after Nicholas Roerich, reconstructed and supervised
by Kenneth Archer. It is divided into two acts, “Adoration of the Earth”
and “The Sacrifice.”
The best way to describe what happens here is to say that the spirit world
inhabits the stage, with two-dimensional characters, an old sage who looks
like a monkey king, ancestors in bearskins, a 300-year-old woman, maidens
in red, women in blue, and a Chosen One, whose role for much of the piece
is to simply stand perfectly still until the stage becomes a study in
molecular motion in a fast-heating cauldron of color. It’s indigenous,
ever-changing, and it reminds us that from chaos comes even more
chaos, in a social order where piety is the only alternative to paganism.
It should come as no surprise that Stravinsky’s score provoked a riot
when the piece débuted in Paris in 1913.
The sunrise in the backdrop makes the horizon look like a kind of precipice.
The sky is maelstrom red as women dancers bourée a kind of noose around
The Chosen One (Maia Wilkins), who is selected for sacrifice through a
Musical Chairs (or should we say “Russian Roulette”?) game of chance.
A frenzied solo of resistance to her fate commences, ending when the Chosen
One eventually relents, and dances herself to death in a bid to the Sun-god,
Yarílo, to return the world to springtime. As animal feet paw the floor,
the ensemble of men begins to jump (more than 32 times!), knees bent in
parallel as we saw earlier in “Les Noces.” The piece burnishes a vivid
message that chaos could be challenged only by extreme sacrifice. In the
context of Nijinsky’s life and the direction the world has taken since
his time, it is a glancing metaphor—straight from the heart of the Joffrey
family of origin—to carry into the post-performance reception, reunion
with Fabrice, and then home.
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