In May of 1913, the choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky premiered a ballet that culminated in a riot. The ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” was set to Igor Stravinsky’s notoriously finicky score, which tremors and thrums like something buried, vengeful, underground. Over the course of the performance, Nijinsky’s cast enacted two sacred rites; the first, a harvest celebration, and the second, the ritual sacrifice of the Chosen One, a virginal maiden commanded to dance until she dies. Stravinsky had composed the piece to evoke his family home in Russia, the wildness of village life, and the cyclical rites of harvest growth and winter death. Nijinsky dressed his cast of men and women dancers like medieval Russian villagers; long dresses and tunics, white tights crossed by oxblood ribbons, knee-grazing braids and painted pale faces.
In Nijinsky’s choreography, the chorus stomps and charges against a pastoral background. They weave in circles and link arms, dancing with flat feet and flexed hands. When called to dance herself to death, the Chosen One jumps and jumps in a frenzy, her face a mask of blank shock. If the audience in turn-of-the-century Paris expected classical ballet, they were sorely disappointed. After a few minutes into the performance, the story goes, furious audience members rebelled; some 40 people were arrested, and the police were called to the scene.
It is this history that Wayne McGregor, the English choreographer of widely-acclaimed contemporary ballets “Infra” and “Chroma” and the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet must reckon with in his new interpretation of “The Rite of Spring.” In his so-called “AfteRite,” his first American Ballet Theatre commission, McGregor endeavored to shake off the history of the ballet and its ritualistic pull. But some patterns are easier than others to break.
McGregor’s ballet has replaced the past with the future. Instead of rural Russia, “AfteRite” is set in an alien moonscape modeled after the brutally dry Atacama Desert, rendered through video projections of stark and starry backdrops. Instead of a village doomed to repeat the patterns of natural life, McGregor’s cast is largely disconnected from the land. The only greenery onstage is hidden in a glass structure that resembles a greenhouse on the left side of the stage. The cast rarely dances in the animalistic, unison patterns of Nijinsky’s choreography. McGregor instead has his dancers move all at once and out of sync with each other, harmonious only in their grasp of the elastic choreography. Misty Copeland proved impossible not to watch; her undulating and swivelling movement style made McGregor’s hyperkinetic steps feel natural.
McGregor has also chosen a different focus than Nijinsky; minimizing the role of the woman doomed to die to ensure the survival of her clan, McGregor has chosen to animate the story of the doomed girl’s mother—played with palpable gravitas by the ballerina Alessandra Ferri, whose presence anchors the ballet with an emotional honesty that the plot itself might not deserve. In this version, the mother must choose between her two young daughters, played by children from ABT’s training academy. Holding the two of them, she lets one daughter free, and leads the other daughter to her eventual death.
McGregor is far from the first choreographer to tackle the Stravinsky score and story. Notable heavyweights include Maurice Béjart, who choreographed a version in 1959 and costumed his cast in pastel unitards. Béjart’s movements are at once devotional and insect-like; the dancers stretch out their hands to the sun, and bounce on their toes like frogs. As well, Béjart has given the ballet an erotic charge, with the “rite” itself corresponding to an equally animalistic courtship ritual.
And in 1975, Pina Bausch choreographed her own interpretation, by far the most successful in capturing the purity and tragedy of this final sacrifice. Spectral dancers in pale slips press themselves onto a stage filled with soil, luxuriating in the earth like they’re held in its thrall. A chorus of women stab their chests with their elbows in chronic, trancelike motions, over and over again. Bausch’s movements are both brutal and balletic, and among Bejart and Nijinsky’s herdlike masses, her characters feel uniquely human. But the rite must be enacted, and Bausch sacrifices her Chosen One like each version before her.
“When you are dealing with a work like ‘Rite,’ it’s a palimpsest,” Wayne McGregor told the New York Times ahead of the ballet’s premiere. His choice to title the piece “AfteRite” was one meant to give credit to “the ‘Rites’ [he’s] seen, but also alludes to a sort of retinal burn of recurrent themes and ideas, and to a speculative future.” In other words, Stravinsky’s score is a loaded one. In order to tackle it sideways, McGregor has chosen to create a sequel to “Rite” rather than a revision.
The first three quarters of the dance make this sort of second act to “Rite” feel possible. Aside from a few moments of narrative uncertainty—Ferri’s character is briefly shrouded in what Apollinaire Scherr referred to as an “Abu Ghraib-style hood” and is encircled and attacked by the other members of this future tribe—McGregor’s swivelling steps are entrancing on such a capable company. And in an inspired choice, a dancer sets up a tripod camera at the lip of the stage.
A silent witness, the camera watches all of “AfteRite’s” cruelties and violence. It’s both an admonishment and a reflection of the village people of all previous “Rites” who stand by and watch the Chosen One complete her sacrifice without intervening. In “AfteRite,” the camera continues to roll as Ferri’s character makes her impossible choice. Except where in each previous “Rite” the death was self-inflicted, in McGregor’s version, the finale is far more garish. While one child scampers off to safety, the Chosen One is led into the glass greenhouse that transforms into a gas chamber. As Ferri’s character stands powerless nearby, the unlucky daughter suffocates inside.
McGregor’s version of “The Rite of Spring” has very few rites, and very little spring; its cast isn’t one of nature-dwellers, but one of extremophiles. Though the audience on May 22nd did not seem riled up enough to riot, these narrative choices still came as a shock.