‘Rite’ Isn’t Quite Right Without Innovation

Nearly a century ago in Paris, the world premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” with the Ballet Russes was met with such an intense riot that the performance had to be stopped in an attempt to quell the uproar. The extreme chaos and newness inherent to the music and the accompanying dance incited the outrage of the conservative audience. However, decades later, the brilliance of Stravinsky and the choreographer of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, revealed itself, drastically changing the course of ballet and classical music.

On Saturday night, the Harvard Dance Program performed a collection a dances honoring the centennial of the Ballet Russes in “Viewpointe 9: Rite of Passage.” The pieces, all inspired by the works associated with the Ballet Russes era, were expertly executed and enjoyable to watch. However, what the performance lacked was the true essence of the Ballet Russes—a sense of innovation and originality that pushes the limits of what ballet can be and inspires new understanding of artistic creation.

The four vastly different dances were choreographed by various professionals and undergraduate students and centered on an eclectic array of wonderfully conceived music. Overall, the musical choices were exceptional, and the artists deserve enormous credit for their dedication to the demanding and sometimes arrhythmic choreography.

The first piece, choreographed by Elizabeth Weil Bergmann and composed by Jody Diamond, featured the distinctly Indonesian sound of the gamelan. The piece began with the eerie resonance of the gamelan instruments vacillating between two notes. The Indonesian-inspired dance was divided into an opening and four subsequent parts strikingly offset by the change in colors of the background. The combination of the skillfully composed gamelan music and visually appealing dancing influenced by South Asian traditions coalesced beautifully together. Some of the dancing, however, seemed to lack the effortless flow and clear-cut motion that is required of such a piece.

The much-anticipated United States premiere of “The Rite of Spring” choreographed by Jaime Blanc, one of the most highly regarded dancers in Mexico, was by no stretch of the imagination the supposed highlight of the evening’s performance. The dance was performed to the original music of Stravinsky and revolved around the same themes of pagan rituals and rebirth that inspired the original. Because of the unusual rhythms and dissonance of the piece, the tribal motions of the dancers were quite stunning. As a whole, the performers executed the half-hour long piece with the upmost precision and professionalism, never faltering for a second in their amount of energy and the care given to each move. In particular, the performance by Kristin E.I. Aune ’03—the “chosen” character—was truly remarkable. Using her body with the upmost precision, she successfully conveyed the essence of her part.

While the technique of the dancers was exquisite, a fresher and bolder adaptation of the original ballet would have better served as celebration of the Ballet Russes. Although the choreography did at times add its own creative flair—with the passionate scenes depicting two ancestors fighting over the fate of the “chosen one” or the possessed movements of the pagan tribe as they come in contact with powerful ancestors—it seemed to rely heavily on the movements and themes of the original “Rite of Spring” performance. The artistic vision and purpose of Blanc’s arrangement was effectively portrayed but simply lacked the daring of the original ballet.

The second piece of the performance, entitled “Anomie,” was the hidden gem of the entire performance. The music was a piano piece written by César Franck and featured some professionally trained dancers and other undergraduates. The piece, choreographed by Claudia F. Schreier ’08, focused on various leg movements and lifts by performers Puanani H. Brown ’12, James C. Fuller ’10, Amanda C. Lynch ’10, Kevin Shee ’11, and Elizabeth C. Walker ’11. The interplay between the bodies of the two male dancers and three female dancers throughout the performance created an overall elegance and grace comparable to that of any professional company.

When Diaghilev was asked about the ensuing riot some 90 years ago, he allegedly stated that it was just what he wanted. On Saturday night, the Harvard Dance Program attempted to put on a show centered on the “spirit of the Ballet Russes,” a spirit Diaghilev’s words truly encompass. The show was skillfully performed and the combination of traditional ballet movements with modern interpretations set to such brilliantly scored music made the evening very entertaining. Perhaps a more interesting way of paying tribute to the influence of the Ballet Russes, though, would have been to apply the words of Diaghilev, to put on a show purposefully designed to stretch the mental constructs of ballet and dance.