Joffrey Ballet

Diaghilev Dynasty: 'Les Noces,' 'L’Apres-midi d’un Faune,' 'Le Sacre du Printemps'

by Toba Singer

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, multi-national composition.

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 Mr. Joffrey.

“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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