“The Rite of Spring” is celebrated as much for its infamy as it is for its groundbreaking aesthetic and influence on twentieth-century dance and music. The uproar the avant-garde ballet—scored by Igor Stravinksy and originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—provoked during its 1913 premiere in Paris has enticed many a dancemaker to tackle it in the century since, with choreographers as diverse as Kenneth MacMillan, Martha Graham, Glen Tetley and Pina Bausch trying their hand. In fact, the work has undergone more than 150 interpretations since its debut, and while some are more liberal than others, two components remain in virtually every version: Stravinsky’s strident score and a libretto centred on the Chosen One, a sacrificial victim fated to dance herself to death.
There’s a distinct sense of malice surrounding this plot point in Sasha Waltz’s “Sacre,” a tribute created in 2013 to mark “Rite’s” centenary and performed here as part of a triple bill. Where the original production presented the sacrifice as a daunting but honourable enterprise, something the Chosen One is not so much doomed to suffer as specially selected to assume, “Sacre” makes a point to strip it of any mysticism and instead underscore its brutality. From the offset—in which four figures are shown writhing on the floor, 20-odd more lurking ominously in the corners, shrouded by a veil of mist—the atmosphere is menacing, the threat of violence ever-present. The dancers thrash and bound, chug and pant, veering between panicked and crazed, their collective carnal mass taking on an intimidating life of its own.
The in-your-face physicality is bracing, nowhere more so than the witch hunt for the Chosen One: fresh from a feverish orgy scene, the group chooses and chases down their victim, the choppy staccato score prompting a slew of sharp, startling shapes. Still, I wonder whether the climax—in which the Chosen One strips off her clothes and dances until she drops—would be more effective were the build-up steadier and a tad less accelerated. By the time the fervour engulfs her, all shades of frantic have been exhausted; her frenzy feels no more urgent than that of the preceding scenes—hence her nudity, which seems to me a last-ditch attempt to heighten the already sky-high tension (as opposed to a sincere artistic expression). A slower reveal and this final scene might have resonated more, I think.
Accompanying “Sacre” was “L’Après -midi d’un faune,” Waltz’s take on another Ballets Russes staple, and“Scéne d’Amour,” a duet from her 2007 full-length production “Roméo et Juliette.” Unsurprisingly, the former proved the better companion piece of the two, what with its erotic subtext and modernist score. Here sleek-lined dancers languorously eke out sensual contours, moving between small couplings and whole-group tableaux, spurred on by the fluttery sways of Claude Debussy’s flutes. It’s easy to get lost in the suggestive choreography, and the lighting—which morphs from vibrant primary colours to dreamy pinks and purples as afternoon turns to dusk—is a treat.
“Scéne d’Amour,” meanwhile, marries a conventional structure—the pas de deux—with modern choreography that champions angular shapes and organic transitions. Lorena Justribó Manion and Ygal Tsur brought a welcome sense of maturity to the young lovers, whose passion Waltz paints as ecstatic yet cautious, a guarded tryst rather than a freewheeling flight of fancy. The pair’s interactions are studded with soft lines and tender lifts, and though Hector Berlioz’s brisk strings can overwhelm their dancing at times, they do well to anchor it with their intimate interactions. One—in which Romeo tries to leave and Juliet flings herself at him, desperate and invigorated, both dancers’ limbs flying—is among the evening’s most moving moments.