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The Joffrey Ballet Resurrects The Rite of Spring

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Dancers form a circle arround a central figure; their arms up over their heads and putting one foot in and another out.

The Joffrey Ballet's 1987 production of Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring used the original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll

"[The Rite of Spring] is an astonishing ballet, no less so today than in 1913. Nijinsky's genius as a choreographer bursts forth here in the originality of his vision, the depth of his musicality and the grand sense of inevitability that reigns over the whole. Inspired by Roerich, a specialist in the primitive iconography of pagan Russia, Nijinsky created a movement style that would embody both the logic and the frenzy of Stravinsky's music."

-- Newsweek November 16, 1987

1987When Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes premiered The Rite of Spring, or Le Sacre du printemps (Sacre), at Paris's Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913, a riot broke out. The score by Igor Stravinsky was a panoply of shifting syncopations and dissonant harmonies, while the choreography by famed danseur Vaslav Nijinsky curled the dancers' bodies inward as they jerkily stamped and jumped across the stage. Archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich contributed the set design and the costumes, which were described in a 2002 Ballet Magazine article as "heavy smocks, handpainted with [primitive] symbols of circles and squares." The pre-Modernist audience, accustomed to the demure grace of classical ballet, was further outraged by the graphic nature of the ballet's story--the pagan sacrifice of a virgin by her village to usher in spring.

Nijinsky's ballet was performed only seven more times--in Paris and London-- before disappearing from the classical repertoire for reasons including Nijinsky's mental breakdown and the deterioration of his relationship with Diaghilev. Many new iterations of the ballet were choreographed--including versions by Pina Bausch and Martha Graham--but only the score remained intact from the initial performances.

In FY 1987, the Joffrey Ballet received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in Dance of $243,400 "to support three self-produced seasons in New York City and Los Angeles, and the reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps." The reconstruction was the culmination of more than 15 years of work by Millicent Hodson, a choreographer and dance historian, and her husband Kenneth Archer, an art historian. Hodson and Archer had painstakingly pieced the ballet together from prompt books, contemporary sketches, paintings, photographs, reviews, the original costume designs, annotated scores, and interviews with eye witnesses, such as Dame Marie Rambert, Nijinsky's assistant.

Hodson compares the ballet's exhumation to the rediscovery of Pablo Picasso's seminal work Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. In a 2003 London Independent article, she explained, "The ballet is really the forerunner of modern dance as we know it. It was so different to what had gone before: it was angular, abstract and geometric and so special. The costumes had these ritualistic designs which people had never seen before. It created a whole new agenda for dance."

Given the innovation of Nijinsky's Sacre, it was fitting that it would be resurrected by the equally innovative Joffrey Ballet. Founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the company's groundbreaking repertory of original works quickly distinguished it from its contemporaries. Over the last 50 years, the Joffrey has performed in more than 400 U.S. cities and 26 countries, including a performance in the former U.S.S.R., the first such tour by an American dance company. The company also has garnered a reputation for granting inaugural commissions to now-legendary choreographers, including Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, and Mark Morris. The NEA has regularly supported the company, including the premiere broadcast of Dance In America, which featured works by Joffrey and Arpino.

Hodson met Robert Joffrey, a long-time admirer of Nijinsky, when the Joffrey Ballet toured to Berkeley, California, in 1971; they bonded over their shared passion for preserving old choreography. More than a decade later, Joffrey undertook the task of setting Hodson's recreation of Nijinsky's ballet on his own company, but only after he asked her to "painstakingly describe the choreography for every measure of the music" so that he could verify that the staging was possible. Joffrey actually had considered staging Nijinsky's Sacre since the mid-1950s, when he had lived with Rambert while on tour in England.

The Joffrey Ballet premiered Sacre in Los Angeles on September 30, 1987. The Los Angeles Times raved, "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." The Christian Science Monitor exclaimed, "The ballet in the flesh exceeds every sensational claim in its dossier."

Given the fragmented documentation of the ballet, Hodson admits that the finished work is not an impeachably accurate recreation. A small percentage of the piece is Hodson's own choreography, created to fill in the gaps. The Christian Science Monitor, however, noted, "The finished ballet betrays no awkward lapses of style or choreographic floundering. It may be Hodson's work in spots, but by now Hodson essentially is Nijinsky."

Nijinsky's Sacre has reclaimed its place in the classical repertoire, most recently being adopted by Russia's famed Kirov Ballet. The work, however, continues to reveal itself as new clues to the original surface. In the London Independent, Hodson recounted a telephone call she received after the 1987 Joffrey premiere. "It was from Nijinsky's niece, whose mother had been the original lead ballerina . . . and who had already helped us with details from her mother's letters and so forth," recalls Hodson. "She told me that after seeing the ballet she remembered another letter, which spoke about the sacrificial victim being 'pushed' rather than volunteering, which put a whole different perspective on it."