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Historic Reconstruction : Joffrey Stages Nijinsky's 'Sacre Du Printemps'

October 02, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music/Dance Critic

Everybody knows about the sacred "Sacre" scandale .

It happened in Paris, back in 1913. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes ventured a very modern, very primitive, very dangerous ballet called "Le Sacre du Printemps."

The young Igor Stravinsky wrote the violently raucous, rhythmically complex, emphatically propulsive score for this sacrificial rite of spring. Together with the inspired costume and set designer, Nicholas Roerich, he also concocted the cataclysmic scenario, subtitled "Pictures of Pagan Russia."

Vaslav Nijinsky, the firebrand danseur in excelsis , added the wildly anti-classical choreography.

The conservative Parisians were shocked by what they saw and what they heard. At the premiere, they hissed and hooted, booed and screamed. The progressive minority in the elegant Theatre des Champs-Elysees attempted counterdemonstrations. The result, we are assured, resembled a riot.

A riot at the ballet. How quaint. How lovely. How exciting.

The press joined the delirious fray. Posterity listened.

The production survived only eight performances. Then, for a variety of unrelated reasons, it disappeared, never to be seen in its original form again. Or so one thought.

Most experts feared the "Le Sacre" choreography had disappeared without a trace. A few others weren't so sure.

Most notable, perhaps, among the tenacious skeptics was Millicent Hodson, a young scholar-designer-choreographer from New York who has devoted what must seem like a lifetime to reconstructing the "lost" ballet.

Aided, abetted, stimulated and prodded by an equally obsessed scenic ally, Kenneth Archer, she has pieced together a revelation in the form of a choreographic puzzle. The pieces she used include annotated scores, prompt books, contemporary sketches, paintings, photographs, eye-witness accounts, interviews, diaries and other vastly assorted bits of terpsichorean iconography.

The chronicle of the Hodson-Archer endeavor would, no doubt, rival the most incredible detective saga.

Wednesday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the ever-enterprising Joffrey Ballet offered the world a second look at the first "Sacre." Or, at the very worst, it offered a more than reasonable facsimile thereof.

The dauntless reconstruction wizards confirm that they have had to do some educated guessing and some resourceful padding. Hodson admits that at least 15% of the contrapuntal dancing cannot be authenticated.

The gaps don't seem to matter. This "Sacre" isn't just a labor of enlightened love. It is a historical document of undoubted significance.

Nijinsky's choreography reveals an extraordinarily sensitive, sometimes bluntly literal response to the Stravinsky score. Everything is reduced to elemental clarity, even to brutal simplicity. Everything is stylized.

The picturesque pagans may be adorned with realistic ethnic attire, but their vocabulary of movement and gesture is predicated on muted emotions and brusque, angular stresses. There is nothing flamboyant, nothing overtly virtuosic, about the dancing.

The positions are turned inward. The masses, always arranged in symmetrical groups, favor hunched shoulders, pigeon-toe stances, incessant polyrhythmic bobbing, jerky gestures with flat hands.

When Stravinsky explored two or three ideas simultaneously, Nijinsky did the same, splitting his large ensemble into small, interlocking groups. They stomp the earth with relentless gusto. They ebb and flow in geometric patterns of surprising flexibility and theatrical flair.

The energy output is constant, and constantly oppressive. In this context, the final dance of sacrifice becomes almost anticlimactic.

The Stravinsky-Roerich scenario--ignored or distorted by modern interpreters from Martha Graham to Pina Bausch to Glenn Tetley to Paul Taylor--opens with the quirky crouching hops of an old Slavic crone who presages the ultimate ritual. An ancient wise man kisses the earth. The restless masses execute dances of mysticism and yearning. A young virgin falls into a trance, becomes the Chosen One and, in what should be an orgy of convulsive possession, sacrifices herself to the god of spring.

One looks at this frenzied festival today with eyes that have endured the rigors of post-modern stress. In some superficial ways, the ancient poses and postures look quaint, inhibited and self-conscious. A broader perspective, however, reveals a rare and poignant integrity of expression, a bold fusion of line, color and drama.

At the gala opening, one had to admire the gutsy poise, the fervor and the telling detail of Roerich's storybook designs as revived by Archer. One had to applaud the impeccable continuity and dynamic logic of Nijinsky's choreography as pieced together by Hodson.

One had to be grateful to Joffrey for taking us on this fascinating trip through a dark time tunnel.

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