The Rite Stuff
Ballet and symphony celebrate 100th birthday of controversial piece
What do you get when you combine 25 dancers, 106 musicians and 100 years of history?
You’ll get your answer in late March when BalletMet and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra join forces to present The Rite of Spring.
The ballet and orchestral work by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky celebrates its 100th birthday this year, having made its debut in 1913 in Paris. That milestone provided a perfect reason to bring the show to Columbus, says Jean-Marie Zeitouni, music director for the orchestra.
Though recognized today for its groundbreaking nature and avant-garde presentation, The Rite of Spring received a decidedly chillier reception the first time it was seen by the public. Audiences at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, some not understanding the performance and some overly excited by it, began vocally heckling and lauding it, respectively, nearly leading to riots.
“Rite of Spring remains one of the most modern pieces that was ever written,” says Zeitouni. “Even 100 years later, listening to it, it sounds modern in every possible way as far as the orchestra is concerned.”
Part of the issue was the contemporary material of the production, to which audiences of the day were unaccustomed. Pagan rituals are a big part of the ongoing story, and heady topics such as human sacrifice and sexuality were controversial, though they no longer offend most audiences.
“It really kind of makes you wonder what the world was like if that was what shocked everybody,” says James Kudelka, artistic consultant for BalletMet and choreographer for the production.
The instrumentation, the rhythms and the intensity all evoke contemporary music, Zeitouni says, and even in 2013, it never seems old-fashioned.
“To me, it’s more psychedelic than the psychedelic music of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s more rock than rock music, it’s more heavy metal than heavy metal music,” he says.
It’s not unusual for an orchestra or ballet company to put on a performance of The Rite of Spring, but it’s rare for the two groups to come together for a combined performance due to the challenges presented by coordinating them. But it’s well worth it to see such a renowned piece performed as it was meant to be performed, Zeitouni says, and that’s why he reached out to former BalletMet artistic director Gerard Charles last year about putting on a joint performance. Zeitouni has worked with ballet companies before, but only on traditional collaborative pieces such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker; The Rite of Spring will be an exciting new experience, he says.
The orchestra pit at the Ohio Theatre cannot accommodate the 106 musicians needed to play the piece, so they will instead be on the stage. The orchestra will be toward the back of the stage on an elevated platform, with the dancers on the front part of the stage – including the portion covering the pit.
“So the dance will be on the pit, where the orchestra usually is,” says Kudelka.
That’s the newest and most challenging part of putting the dance portion of the piece together for James Kudelka, who is serving as artistic consultant for BalletMet while the organization searches for a new artistic director. He choreographed a performance of The Rite of Spring in Montreal in the 1980s, but not with a 106-member orchestra sharing the stage.
The presence of the orchestra means there are some areas where less choreography is necessary thanks to the exciting and sometimes visual nature of the music, and some areas where more may be needed because the musicians significantly outnumber the dancers, Kudelka says. Stravinsky left some stage directions, but was very talented at telling a story with his music, so much of the dancing is open to the interpretation of the choreographer.
“I’m not wanting to have the story come out of the music; I’m just trying to react to it,” says Kudelka.
The new steps will be a contemporary reaction to the music, he says, with such adjustments as increased focus on sexuality, as through touch – touch is an important part of ballet, but Kudelka aims to make it more charged than usual, despite the challenges of conveying intimacy with more than 100 musicians in the background.
“I’m trying to see it as about sexuality, eroticism and romanticism,” says Kudelka.
For the orchestra, just reaching the notes is a major challenge. When the work arrived on the scene 100 years ago, the music was about “three levels above the level of what the musicians could play,” Zeitouni says, and though those notes are more accessible today, they’re still tough. Another challenge for the orchestra is considering the speed of the dancers and their interpretation of the choreography; a live orchestra is not as predictable as a taped one, and the musicians need to be able to accommodate the dancers without being too mechanical.
“The benefit of it is what happens in real time goes way beyond what is predictable,” says Zeitouni. “In the moment, the synergy of both art forms is so much more meaningful for us and for the audience.”
Preceding The Rite of Spring onstage will be Rapsodie Espagnole, an original piece set to the music of Maurice Ravel and choreographed by BalletMet dancer Jimmy Orrante, who also dances in The Rite of Spring. The four-movement piece utilizes six dancers and a smaller contingent of orchestra members.
“(The movements) are all written for different styles of Spanish dance,” Orrante says.
Garth Bishop is editor of CityScene Magazine. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.