George Balanchine glorified women. In the maestro’s own words: “The principle of classical ballet is woman.” He was deeply affected by female beauty, choosing his dancers accordingly—he preferred the ones he deemed gorgeous. To accentuate this beauty, Balanchine not only liberated the ballerina’s movements by making them bigger and faster, but also he unshackled her hips from the customary tutu. Minimizing the coverings of the dancer’s body revealed more of the female form, thus making visible every movement in his expansive version of classical ballet.
The Balanchine Woman returns in a new production of the Los Angeles–based American Contemporary Ballet (ACB), which just opened its twelfth season. The inaugural performance, succinctly titled The Rite (running through October 28), is an inspired homage to both Balanchine and the composer Igor Stravinsky. The score is that of the Ballets Russes’ Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), which premiered in Paris’s newly built Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913. That night, Stravinsky’s dissonant music and the experimental choreography by the company’s star, Vaslav Nijinsky, proved too much for the audience, which famously heckled and whistled (and, rumor has it, exchanged blows) for most of the performance. Nijinsky himself stood on a chair in the wings shouting numbers to his struggling dancers to help them keep their tempo—not a trivial task given the irregular rhythm of the music.
The ruckus of the Ballet Russes’ premiere was a result of Stravinsky’s daring score exacerbated by the arguably even more daring choreography that was at odds with any notion of grace in traditional ballet. Nijinsky’s corps stomped their legs and jerked their arms, which many in the audience took as derisive. This was not what Stravinsky had in mind as he was composing the score. He imagined “rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would have an instantaneous effect on the audience. . . . The music . . . clear and well defined, demand[s] a corresponding choreography—simple and easy to understand.” But young Nijinsky was interested in neither ease nor simplicity. As Stravinsky later recalled in his autobiography: “although he had grasped the dramatic significance of the dance, Nijinsky was incapable of giving intelligible form to its essence and complicated it either by clumsiness or lack of understanding.” The exasperated composer blamed the choreographer’s lack of musical education: “his ignorance of the most elementary notions of music was flagrant. The poor boy knew nothing of music.”
In contrast, Lincoln Jones, the director of ACB and the choreographer of The Rite, has done a formidable job keeping his choreography simple and comprehensible for the audience, per the composer’s wishes. A transcription of the score for piano four hands, once played by Stravinsky and Claude Debussy, was performed live by Brandon Zhou and Daniel Gledhill.
The choreography and musical accompaniment in The Rite are further enhanced by the untraditional venue. The company’s stage on the twenty-eighth floor of a downtown high-rise strategically uses a wall of reflective glass to expand the space, with city lights gleaming in the background. The stage is not raised, allowing a level of physical proximity to the dancers such that even their minute facial expressions and the motions of their digits register as much as the movement of their limbs. This exceptional resolution, in turn, contributes to enhanced tactility—the viewers are close enough to empathize with the tragic plight of the protagonist, The Chosen One, performed by Hannah Barr. At one point, she lies prostrate in a spotlight, her delicate fingers evoking vulnerability, as if foretelling the maiden’s pitiful fate.
Jones has changed the narrative structure of the Ballets Russes version in an interesting way. As if illustrating Balanchine’s famous dictum that is the title of this review, he uses an all-female cast of twelve beautiful young dancers. And while the original ballet’s central premise of ritualistic, voluntary self-sacrifice for the purpose of regeneration remains (a young girl still dances herself to death in a rite for the sake of her tribe), nothing is left of the exoticism that enchanted and scandalized Parisians in 1913. Subtle costumes by Ruoxuan Li and Yasamin Sarabipour display a restrained color palette of light beige, white, and scarlet accents, but the attention remains on, as Balanchine would have it, the beauty of female form. Jones has removed the character of the Old Woman who prophesies The Chosen One’s fate in the opening sequence of the Le Sacre, transferring the function to The Chosen One herself, who has two premonitory nightmares. This effectively makes her more of a subject and less of an object, amplifying the horror of her realization that she must succumb to her fate. Jones has also added a character that did not exist in the original: the character, danced by Madeline Houk, manifests as a hybrid of Le Sacre’s Old Sage, who watches the girl dance herself to death at the end of the 1913 version, and the Siren, a temptress from Balanchine’s 1929 Ballet Russes production The Prodigal Son.
Houk’s character is a venomous, Salome-like femme fatale who oozes eroticism and dominance. She is the opposite of the meek and pure Chosen One, who is taunted by her tribe and persuaded toward self-annihilation. This new character doesn’t follow, she directs. She is also the only dancer in the ballet to wear pointe shoes, on which she performs fast pique and chaîné turns. Consistent with the authority of her personality, her chin juts forward, and she holds her head higher than typical during those turns. By contrast, The Chosen One is submissive; she moves emotionally but often furtively, restricted by unyielding groupings of tribe members whose lines obediently part in the presence of her foil. Only at the end, under the strobing lights that signal her imminent demise, does The Chosen One turn from graceful to spasmodic. Her death dance channels the Dionysian theme dominant in the 1913 version. So too does the behavior of the conflicted corps, the disposition of which alternates between the chaotic and Dionsyian—pulling, chasing, and mocking The Chosen One—and the ordered and Apollonian, as when the crowd chooses to comfort her. The tribe is also a mob.
Here is where art meets life. As recently detailed by Jones, the ACB and its director experienced the noxiousness of the mob firsthand in the summer of 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. Having been the target himself, it is hardly surprising then that in The Rite Jones reframed the tribe of Le Sacre as a mob—destructive, merciless, blind to reason and indifferent to truth. Ultimately, the rite just might be about keeping the tribe alive—at any cost.