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The Man Who Made History Dance




at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 22-27, 1988

Dances are not things like paintings or sculptures. Dances do not have texts like plays, or even a universal notation like music. Dances are experiences, phenomena; they enjoy only a trace existence after the performance. If a choreographer and her dancers forget a work, it is gone. Video and each of several notation systems capture something, but no medium actually captures all of the dance. In a very real sense, once a dance is no longer performed, it is dead, regardless of whether, or even how, it is recorded. Few dancers, choreographers, and historians have the courage to struggle with ephemera; few dare to dance with ghosts. Robert Joffrey did.

Robert Joffrey's death from renal and respiratory failure in New York during his company's Chicago season saddened many. Only 58, he trained many fine dancers, created a strong and entirely unique ballet company, maintained the Joffrey Ballet for more than 30 years, actively encouraged many young choreographers and dance scholars, and entertained countless Americans in regular seasons in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Joffrey has won numerous awards, most of which cite his ability to entertain, to make an essentially elitist art form available and understandable. To me, Robert Joffrey will always be the man who made history dance.

In addition to its astonishing popular success, Robert Joffrey's company has performed some of the most important dances ever made: some reconstructed from various forms of notation, some revived by their choreographers, still others restaged from notes and memory by dancers.

Nijinsky's Le sacre du printemps ("The Rite of Spring") is the latest addition to the Joffrey's repertoire of historic works--the most powerful, most mystical, most important work of an impressive collection, a treasure and Joffrey's most precious legacy.

Composer Igor Stravinsky collaborated with painter and anthropologist Nicholas Roerich to create the libretto for the two-act ballet, set in a pre-Christian Slavic culture. In the first act, the people gather to celebrate the spring: youths, maidens, women, elders, the wise woman, the sage--each has a part to play in the celebratory ritual. In the second act, one of the Young Maidens stumbles and is thus marked as the Chosen One, sacrificial bride of sun god Yarilo, and Sacre culminates in climactic ritual.

Stravinsky's score is driving, relentless, ever-changing, incantatory; Nijinsky's choreography follows it count for count and color for color. From beginning to end, the stage burns with wheeling, spinning blurs of the black, white, red, yellow, and blue of Roerich's costumes. Each of the nine groups wears a costume painted with different ritual designs, designs that reappear in the patterns described by the dancers as they run (literally) through the dance.

The dance's greatest drama arises from stillness. While the stage explodes with beating feet and whirling pattern, the Chosen One stands transfixed--one arm raised, hand curled but not quite fisted, head to one side, her eyes fixed on something we cannot see, her experience something we cannot fathom--and tension grows. The more the energy of her final dance contrasts with the others, the greater that tension. There is no possible release except death, the leap straight up into the fight.

One doesn't watch Sacre as much as experience it: the fast and furious movement, the throbbing and pulsing of the score. No wonder so many choreographers have felt compelled to use this music. No wonder this dance, which has existed for 75 years only in the memories of the original dancers, musicians, and spectators, has had such an influence on both ballet and modern dance. The concerns of Sacre--the individual's responsibility to the group, the cultural relevance of ritual and mysticism, even its abstract form and structure--are still important today. The sheer power of the Joffrey's performance--especially Beatriz Rodriguez's self-contained Chosen One--their inexhaustible energy and ardor, save Sacre from a stultifying reverence.

Parade, Leonide Massine's 1917 so-called realistic ballet, is another of the Joffrey Ballet's treasures. Originally produced by Diaghilev, it bears all the hallmarks of his Ballets Russes: a new, often controversial score; scenery and costumes commissioned from one of the foremost visual artists of the time--in this case, Picasso; and less concern with the traditional technique of ballet than with ballet as theater. In poet Jean Cocteau's libretto, three Paris music-hall acts (a Chinese Conjurer, two Acrobats, and a Little American Girl) are on parade outside the theater, while three Managers (one from New York, one in evening ,dress, and one on horseback) attempt to lure the crowd inside.

Massine's choreography almost disappears, subsumed by Parade's total theatricality and Picasso's set and costumes. The Chinese Conjurer's dramatic jumps, flexed wrists, and endless fingers are fascinating; the Acrobats, whose dance suggests tumbling, juggling, and walking on the tightwire, display a breathtaking virtuosity; the Little American Girl's pyrotechnical performance is pretty and pert; and the two men in a horse suit almost inevitably reduce the audience to helpless laughter. But it's Picasso's curiously animate cubism that captures our attention. The Manager in Evening Dress and the Manager from New York dance inside great sculptures that make them well over ten feet tall. We see angles, lines, prisms, planes, surfaces; dark neutrals emphasize the set and the costumes as forms. If cubism looks dated to you, so will Parade; if cubism exists for you alongside other isms in some imagined present--a sort of neo-Aristotelian community of works of art--then Parade will appeal to you.

Parade was a succes de scandale at its premiere. None of the major works Diaghilev commissioned for the Ballets Russes ever received a lukewarm or a polite reception, largely because they all seek to outrage or titillate in some way. In Parade, the bulky, boxy sculptures threaten to overbalance the dancers. Where an audience might half-consciously worry, in another dance, about the ballerina's leap into her partner's arms, here what threatens are the huge, unwieldy costumes. The siren, typewriter, jazz rhythms, and steamship whistle of Satie's score still shock audiences accustomed to equating ballet music with Tchaikovsky and pretty pastiche. Audiences charmed by virtuosic display find plenty, but it is brash, forthright, and modern, not the cloaked and softened prowess of Romantic ballet. Dancing has changed so radically in the last 70 years that what was shocking then is now, at best, intriguing. It is a credit to Joffrey's vision, the faithfulness of this revival, and the obvious enthusiasm and conviction of the company's dancing that Parade looks so little like a museum piece.

Some reviews of the 1912 Paris premiere of Nijinsky's L'apres-midi d'un faune stress the choreography's severe two-dimensional effect; others give the impression that the entire theater was in rut, so erotic was Nijinsky's choreography and so feral his performance. It was shocking, widely considered obscene. With Tyler Walters as the faun and Jill Davidson, Kathryn Ginden, Jennifer Habig, Valerie Madonia, Elizabeth Parkinson, Victoria Pasquale, and Charlene Gehm as nymphs, Faune looks sleepy and somewhat sedate, more a mild adventure in autoerotism than flagrant bestiality.

In the opening, when the faun lies on his sunny rock playing his flute and then stretches, his head turning all the way from one side to the other, Walters is convincingly wild, but the entrance of the nymphs distracts and tames him. He spends the rest of the dance following them around like a half-trained puppy, half-interested but certainly not aroused. When the nymphs stop moving, they do indeed resemble flattened Greek friezes, as early critics wrote; in motion, they lack the severe, counterballetic style necessary to keep in a precise row, to move only in the plane parallel to the proscenium, to keep torsos facing directly front while heads turn all the way to one side. Only in Walters's last moments--when the faun pours the nymph's scarf down his lifted arm and torso, spreads it on the rock, lowers his body to it, raises on toes and forehead, lowers, shudders, and lies still--does the audience glimpse just how powerful Faune might be.

Never mind. Leon Bakst's costumes and decor for Faune are gorgeous, rich and sensuous: the drop curtains drenched in deep reds and greens; the glimmering metallic wigs and shimmering golden patches on the nymphs' painted, patterned, Grecian gowns; the sprinkling of flowers over the fauns barely painted unitard and his proud phallic tail. Seeing Bakst's work in motion under theater lights, instead of in ancient photographs or on mannequins in the dimly lit shrines of museums' costume collections, is worth enduring much, much more than a little tedium.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Herbert Migdoll.

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