writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Stravinsky redux

Stravinsky Triple Bill
Le Rossignol, Le Sacre du Printemps,
and Oedipus Rex
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
October 13, 2003

By Susan Reiter
Copyright ©2003 by Susan Reiter

The drop curtain for the revival of the Metropolitan Opera's revival of its unusual 1981 Stravinsky triple bill features an abstract design and reads "Stravinsky 1882." This is presumably from the original production, which was timed to be unveiled on the eve of the composer's centenary, I found myself thinking that this time they could have had a curtain that read "Ashton 1904" given that the central portion of this triptych, Le Rossignol, features choreography by Frederick Ashton, whose centenary we are about to observe.

Since we see far too little of Ashton's choreography in New York these days (although ABT has greatly improved that situation the past two years by adding two of his greatest works to its repertory), this opportunity to renew acquaintance with a piece of choreography from his later years was most welcome. Ashton choreographed the central roles of the Nightingale and the Fisherman on Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell, who had repeated them the only other time this triple bill was revived, during the 1983-84 season. This time around, they were performed by Julie Kent and Damian Woetzel.

In addition to being the evening's centerpiece, Le Rossignol, a 45-minute "lyric tale" (none of the three works is exactly an opera, but this one comes closest) first performed as a Ballets Russes production in 1914, is its heart and soul: a poignant and delicate dramatization of a Hans Christian Andersen tale that, in this version, ideally blends singing and dancing. It is also the work in which David Hockney's designs—impressive and original throughout the evening—work their most persuasive magic.

The production's various elements are all stunning. Hockney's costumes, masks and exquisite silky drops explore every shade of blue in the spectrum. Stravinsky's score was composed over a period from 1908 to 1914, so that in between starting and finishing it he composed a few little other works like The Firebird and Le Sacre du Printemps, and the earlier and later portions of "Le Rossignol" reflect the transitions in his style. I heard echoes of Firebird's enchanted garden sequence in the calm, dreamy first scene in which the Fisherman is waiting on the shore at dawn, alone with nature. By the time the setting shifts to the pompous, overstuffed Emperor's court, the music contained intimations of Les Noces. Stravinsky ingeniously incorporated just enough "Chinese" sounds to make the score faintly exotic and otherworldly. The score's orchestral richness, interpreted sensitively by conductor Valery Gergiev, takes the listener on an intoxicating journey.

But it is Ashton's choreography, and the way it makes the Nightingale and the Fisherman such potent, poetic characters, that makes Le Rossignol such a richly satisfying experience and gives it its coherence. They are the only two on stage whose faces are revealed. Those of all the other characters—employees and emissaries of the Emperor, a figure embodying Death—are either masked or painted white, or both.

The bird, in a sleek pale blue unitard with subtle feather-like designs painted on, and a small tuft of material in back that isn't quite a skirt, is a portrait of line and adagio eloquence. Her bathing-cap-like matching headpiece further adds to the sleek look and enhances her creature-like nature. She appears, in a wonderful moment, in the branches of a stylized white tree, gently fluttering her arms. Her choreography is all about gently unfurling limbs and delicate shapes. Some of the traditional bird-ballet clichés are evoked but she is very much her own creature, a gossamer figure of innocence amid a world of luxury and indulgence.

The Fisherman is a similarly pure figure, wearing a dark blue belted tunic and breeches, and a gently conical Chinese-style hat. He opens the work and closes each of its three scenes with introspective, melancholy solos, and as the one character who appreciates the Nightingale for the beauty of her song and does not try to appropriate her in any way, is its conscience.

The Fisherman's choreography was so tailored to Dowell's luxuriant line and beauty in adagio that as soon as Woetzel started dancing, I was seeing the roles' originator in my mind's eye. This is not to say that Woetzel was not a revelation in the role. So often a blazing technical force on his virtuoso roles, he found a calm center in his dancing and seems to delight in the smallest detail. While Peter Boal would seem to be the most Dowellesque dancer of their generation, Woetzel rose to the challenge, muting his natural extroversion and creating a touching portrayal.

Kent made a more elongated, slightly less fluid Nightingale than Makarova, for whose sculpted adagio contours Ashton lovingly shaped the role. With Makarova, one also got the gentle reverberation of her close association with other bird roles. Yet much as the two roles confirmed the uniqueness of their originators, and the enduring power of their performances to stay in the mind, the current duo very much made the Ashton choreography their own. This is quite an achievement, since there is no one credited with the re-staging. The Met's publicity department, when asked about how this 20-plus-year-old choreography was brought back to the stage, said it was the work of "in-house staff" and mentioned a videotape of the original. All the more surprising that Le Rossignol re-emerged with its magic intact.

The main choreographic news of this revival was that the opening work, Le Sacre du Printemps had entirely new choreography by Doug Vaorne, the company having jettisoned the bland and murky version that Jean-Pierre Bounnefoux created in 1981. Varone's is a more primal, earth-pounding Sacre, featuring what seems to be a huge cast but in fact numbers about 35.

His central figures are two robed sages, performed by veteran modern dancers Nina Watt and Larry Hahn, who are often at the vortex of the ensemble's forceful, swirling patterns. Varone clearly felt liberated by the opportunity to work with such a large number of dancers. The churning, primal passages for the ensemble - often divided into male and female contingents—were this "Sacre"'s most impressive features. Watt and Han both have superb stage presence and projected authority and command, but some of the ritualistic actions they performed were vague and confusing, particularly a sequence when they held up and passed around what looked like a sheaf of wheat or hay. I expected that to be the means by which the Chosen, a couple, were selected, but that was not the case.

Varone's Sacre was atmospheric but could not sustain its impact or convey a convincing dramatic arc. The chosen couple, who emerge quite late, are terrified, unwilling victims, whom the sages brutally usher towards their doom, with a final downstage murder that had echoes of The Cage.

Hockney carried his theme of masks throughout the evening, and in Sacre everyone had a divided face, half dark grey and half white (the women one way and the men the reverse), with additional marking and circles around their eyes. This, along with the loincloth-and-schmatte costumes, created some sort of vaguely prehistoric look. Hockney's masks for Oedipus Rex, which closed the evening, were gleaming pieces of white sculpture, ceremoniously held by attendants and placed in position as each principal singer was about to enter the action. With a vast men's chorus, in tuxedos with their faces painted white, seated below the ledge on which the stylized "action" took place, and its declamatory score sung in Latin, this stark, declamatory staging had a severity that was a brilliant musical-theater equivalent of Greek drama.

[Note:  This program will be repeated October 23. 2003; and February 21 and 23, 2004.]

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 4
October 20, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 20, 2003