Kiss of Death
Violin Concerto," "There Where She Loved," and "The
Rite of Spring"
When “Rite of Spring” was first commissioned for Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky, it caused a hullabaloo that is infamous to this day. Originally, it was premiered in Paris alongside a performance of the comparatively innocuous “Les Sylphides.” The theme of “Rite of Spring,” a pagan ritual, was hardly spring-like. And Nijinsky’s choreography was angular, physically unnatural and emotionally dissonant. One dancer recalled the steps’ required heft and thrust as being heavy enough to “jar every organ” in the body. The music was an assault to the ears of the first paying audiences, who came to the ballet expecting effulgent Chopin-esque trills, but left with a new, melody-subversive musical vocabulary to decode. Stravinsky’s bassoon, for example, is composed in an atypically high register, making the sound strident in its discordance. No one took to it. The crowds hissed and catcalled so vociferously that the dancers could scarcely hear each other and their music cues. The pagans in the ballet made pagans out of the theatergoers. The original “Rite of Spring” represented a new beginning for dance, however. The title itself, in hindsight, was apt yet pat: It was a spring, a rebirth for the form. Would that the latest choreographic iteration of Stravinsky’s now venerated score were similarly inventive.
The Washington Ballet has acquired a garish, ghastly new production, courtesy of the choreographer Trey McIntyre. and a design team who would not have been out of their element working in the Bollywood movie musical industry of the Seventies (the costumes were by Vandal, the set by Nicholas Phillips). As glamorous and colorful as everything may appear to be on first impression, it becomes dispiritingly clear that this is less about the lush floridity of springtime, and more about the jaundiced, drought-stricken landscape of inhumanity.
Interpreted as a love story between two women set against the backdrop of a ballroom gala (though the press notes described it as taking place “firmly in modern day times”), McIntyre’s ballet felt both dated and out of place and time. The choreography consisted of side steps and arm bends that ratcheted up and down like fulcrums. The lifts were of the cheer squad variety. The pas de deux were impersonal; the most significant were between Laura Urgelles, as a sullen glamourpuss, and Brianne Bland as her partner (or handmaiden?), but they were little more than skips, twirls and longing gazes at one another.
Erin Mahoney was the villainess (evil queen?) of a sort. With her smart, hawk-like expressiveness and lanky limb span, she could easily have given the impression of an ominous raptor who loomed over the lives and destinies of the others (her subjects?). But as staged by McIntyre, Mahoney was provided the strangest, most incomprehensible character role of her career. She looked goosey and jagged, far too clumsy to be imposing. And with the plumed headdress foisted onto her face and hair (and onto the crowns of the other ladies of the corps; the men wore bandito masks that made the ball look more and more like a Zorro convention), the imagery bordered on the ridiculous.
Stylistically speaking, anyone who found the artistic synergy between Gaston Leroux and Andrew Lloyd Webber an effective gothic enterprise (a half-masked phantom who walked through mirrors and navigated a boat around a swamp of candelabras while singing mellifluously: boo!) would have responded approvingly to this production.
Choreographic problems aside, what was most off-putting was the mistake made by everyone involved who determined that in order to accomplish profundity, all one need do is eliminate all happiness from every character and make the principal ones gay. Both the novel and film versions of “The Hours” followed the same elliptical rubric. Two women are kissing: this must be important. If one of them is Meryl Streep, it has to be; if it’s the crux of a ballet, it positively reeks of relevance.
In addition, an odd nude boy (Jonathan Jordan, playing either the rapist son of Mahoney’s malicious matron, or just some random predator with peek-a-boo tendencies—and by the way, who invited him?) practices a strip tease, during which he ends up showing off everything (for the purposes of the ballet: he’s still got skin-toned tights on) to the onlookers in the piece. This served as a metaphor for all of “Rite of Spring.” If they planned on teasing us, only to leave absolutely nothing to the imagination anyway, what might the point of it all be?
Thankfully, the evening also included a restorative elixir of dance for the mind and the heart called “There Where She Loved,” staged by the indelible Christopher Wheeldon. Orchestrated to music by Chopin and Kurt Weill (sung live by the flute-voiced Dorothy Kingston and the positively incandescent mezzo-soprano, Shelley Waite; Margarita Gramaticova lent dewy sensitivity to the piano accompaniment), the pas de deux, trois and cinq reached vignette status. Christopher Wheeldon coached the Washington Ballet dancers personally, exacting every nuance and fillip out of his gorgeous choreography. Technically, his work is always precise enough to make a Swiss watchmaker green, but “There Where She Loved” presented a warmer side of the choreographer, rarely seen and surprisingly penetrating. Urgelles was delicate and airy with every vault into and away from her partners’ arms. She was a pocket Venus di Milo, exalted above their shoulders with care. “The Wish” (to Chopin) was something of a vanity piece for her, but it was substantive enough, thanks to Wheeldon’s eye for sculpting with the body.
In the “Surabaya-Johnny” (to Weill) segment, Maki Onuki and Sara Ivan were light and seductive, embodying a woman whose conflicting emotions over a lover force her to glower into a smoky past or look toward a murky future. Brian Corman, as the aforementioned Johnny, boasted a steely, oafish composure: it was easy to see why these girls were so transfixed yet repulsed by their Kowalski-esque suitor.
Ms. Bland was the unexpected star of the second act, investing her solos in “Spring” and “There Where She Loves” with appropriate proportions of playfulness and gravity. Jetés and port de bras were elegant (if truncated; she doesn’t look like a ballerina, per se, but her movements were no less graceful because of it). She found a sensitive partner in Jonathan Jordan, whose strength and fluidity made up for his occasionally sleepy demeanor.
“Violin Concerto,” a Balanchine staple, was sloppily articulated by the company. In the “Toccata” section, Erin Mahoney had difficulty finding her center of balance, while Sara Ivan was a lovely, if somewhat anonymous partner for Corman. His jumps were short and looked like work, but accompanied by Ms. Ivan, the choreography, in all of its detail, was nicely framed. Mahoney and Runqiao Du had more difficulty together than apart. He struggled to offset her long lines and considerable strength. Du was shaky during the lifts and often filled the space by tiptoeing quickly to catch up with his partner and the rest of the ensemble. The effect was of attending the school talent show and watching the nervous kid’s fingers quavering at the piano keys while he played respectably.
The corps was sporadic in their execution, sometimes achieving a clean, uniform exactitude, other times moving ahead of or falling behind one another’s tempo. The sharp, luminous Kara Cooper and Aaron Jackson, he of the determined jaw and resolute shoulders, were particularly persuasive, serving as both troupe leaders and dependable supporters.
The Washington Ballet is a company still searching for a personality. When it attempts the more contemporary sides of classical dance, comfortable fits are often revealed. Vladimir Angelov and Donald Byrd have proven themselves to be fluent interpreters of this ensemble’s brand of body language. And even Balanchine can find a place within their lexicon if it’s the right tone. “Tarantella” would be something to work up to. But as a young company with a modern stripe, new should not be synonymous with loud pantomime, all peaks and no valleys. New can be subtle, new can be gentle, new can be quiet. Even Stravinsky composed the soft, lyrical “Symphony of Psalms.”