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Joffrey Ballet

'Parade,' 'L’Apres-midi d’un Faune,' 'Le Sacre du Printemps'

by Jeffrey Kuo

June 27, 2003 -- Music Center, Los Angeles

“Parade” (Satie/Massine)

Even predating that feverish dream which is Hollywood, “Parade” realizes the insight that sometimes the previews are more entertaining than the feature films themselves. Its libretto is simple—before a music hall, lumbering, Cubist hucksters and a menagerie of entertainers try to entice passersby. The 15 foot tall MC costumes are Disney parade-like assemblages of skyscrapers, stove pipe hats, and rapier cigarette-holders. So deeply has the ballet imbibed synthetic cubism, the costumes seem to wear the dancer rather than the other way—human limbs become part of their curious construction. Samuel Pergande and Fabrice Calmels were French MC and American MC respectively.

Though the creators’ intent was to shock the jaded tastes of 1917, the contemporary effect seems dated. To my eye, “Parade” looks squarely backwards to the divertissements of the Russian Imperial Theaters rather than forward to the modern age. The Chinese Conjuror in his hideous Mandarin jacket, clown pants, and jesterish cap is of that degraded race of faux-Chinese that populate so many unfortunate ballets. Definitely an opium eater.

The Little American Girl with her big white hair bow, “middy” blouse, and Lolita lips seems somehow menacing as in her dance is a thinly concealed pantomime of child molestation. She falls to the ground, gestures as if pushing something away, struggles back flat on the stage floor. O yes I realize that her choreography is a movie allusion but what is “The Perils of Pauline” if not a pederastic fantasy? Davis Robertson is the Mandarin and Stacy Joy Keller, Pauline.

More conventionally are the Horse MC, an importation from the music hall tradition of two men in a horse costume, and the Acrobats, saltimbanques familiar from Picasso iconography. A happy vestige of the horse ballets of the 17th century, the Horse MC trots forwards, backwards, sideways, and looks knowingly at the audience. He even chases his tail. I know it’s impossible since its head is formed from a guitar, but I could have sworn that Horse MC winked at us more than once. The saltimbanques, looking great in their white unitards emblazoned with blue stars and stripes, romp, wire-walk, and juggle. David Gombert and Michael Smith are the Horse MC and Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives the Acrobats.

No doubt “Parade” was an eye opener in 1917. Lincoln Kirstein quotes Jean Cocteau: “The hand of dictatorship lay heavy on Montparnasse and Montmartre then, and Cubism was going through a period of austerity …. To do décor for theater, above all, for the Ballet Russe, was a crime.” A crime? No doubt Diaghilev found that delicious.

“L’Apres-midi D’un Faune” (Debussy/Nijinsky)

Don’t you love it when they bring porn to the Dorothy Chandler stage? Not flesh but fetish. To Debussy’s dreamy music, the Faune basks lazily until aroused by bathing nymphs. He chases them around nosing for a slo-mo ravish but they escape. The curtain falls as the Faune enacts on the nymph Leader’s scarf something forensic that is probably only described in the more obscure pages of Krafft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis . Or is witnessed by ticketholders – men, women, and children of all ages and sects — on the Dorothy Chandler stage. Salacious … prurient … ? … no, delectable ...

Domingo Rubio was the Faune and Trinity Hamilton, the Leader of the Nymphs.

“Le Sacre du Printemps” (Stravinsky/Nijinsky)

Years afterwards, Virginia Woolf wrote that the world changed around 1911 which is to say about the time of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics (1913) -- and of course “Le Sacre du Printemps” (1913). Simply put, “Sacre” is considered one of the touchstones of high modernism.

The story of the riot that ensued at its premiere at the is the stuff of legend. Yet almost a century later its power can’t be denied. The only other time I saw this “Sacre” was at the Kennedy Center last year and I thought the choreography looked dated. Its turned in feet and other ménage of anti-balletic movements (jumping, shuffling, sliding, knocking, etc) looked antique – reminding me that it’s impossible to see “Sacre” with the eyes of 1913.

In “Sacre” the race of man is primitive, tribal, tied to the earth by unspecifiable shamanistic forces. Primitives natives dress in earthen colors and vegetable pigments—red, blue, or mauve. They dance—perhaps rituals of the hunt or combat. The tenuousness of man’s hold on existence is betrayed by their reliance upon ritual, the sacerdotal transmission of which is guarded by a gnarled “Old Woman of 300 Years” and a menacing “Old Sage.” In the second part, human sacrifice (o yes, just another night at the ballet…) is required to propitiate alien and hostile gods. A maiden, the Chosen One, is singled out. Hunters in bear skins and ancestors dance around the her—their pawing and scraping indicating a ritual inversion of the hunt. To satisfy what must be an animal god, tribesmen are transformed into beasts who hunt and devour a human. Dancing to terminal exhaustion, the Chosen One is the quid pro quo of “Sacre”’s ghastly logic.

Diaghilev had shown sexuality, cruelty, and blood before. But, to propitiate the cynical, jaded Parisian public, Diaghilev and Nijinsky gave them what I believe might have been the last great old world ballet. According to the ballet’s resolutely hard logic, the Chosen One is sacrificed to ensure the continuation of the community. Her death—to us meaningless except at spectacle—has an essentially social function—it justifies the weltanschauung of a pre-modern world that mandates the existence of victims.

At the risk of straying into philosophy (or just exaggerating for effect), I might say that after “Sacre” and the old world there would no longer be a place for the grand recits of life, death, and community. There would still be dark ballets of death—but most are of the petit recits of a Lizzie Borden, Billy the Kid, the Poet and the Sonnambulist, the Novice. I think it’s no coincidence that “Sacre’s” premiere becomes iconic in and begins Modris Eksteins’ history, “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.”

The Chosen One was interestingly double cast with the Woman of 300 Years. Tonite, Deanne Brown was the Chosen One and Maia Wilkens was An Old Woman of 300 Years. Adam Sklute was the Old Sage. I’ll assume Leslie B. Dunner conducted
.

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