What causes people to riot? Circa 2013 America it’s billionaire bonuses at the expense of the middle class. Or police brutality. Or sport championships. Recently In the Muslim world it’s dictators, Danish cartoons and YouTube videos. In 1913 Paris it was unorthodox dance moves. When the Rite of Spring premiered it changed Ballet forever. 100 years later, the Rite and the riot it instigated are the stuff of legends-- probably the most interesting bit of your music history appreciation class. The score is still heart-thumping-intense and San Francisco Ballet’s production with choreography by Yuri Possokhov achieved an energy that was alluring and riveting in a terrifying way.
Human sacrifice is a part of history in all parts of the world-- it is the strongest gesture a person can make-- giving his or her or another's life to a God. From the binding of Isaac in Genesis to the crossing of Jesus in the New Testament and many other instances in pagan religions, it must have been a horrid thrill to witness. Stravinsky channels that experience with unrelenting dissonance and unyielding rhythms. Possokhov and the dancers recreated that primitive world at the War Memorial Opera house on the Feb. 26th premiere of the production. Traditional Russian ballet moves intermix with “traditional” Rite of Spring moves-- both feet stomping heavily as opposed to twirling on the point of a toe. A four-legged monster monster-priest connected with a stretchy fabric (Garen Scribner & James Sofranko) crept across the dance floor with scary agility. Sacrificial Ballerina Jennifer Stahl was captivating whether dancing expressively or trapped in deathly contortions on the gallows. My only complaint is that the opening bassoon solo wasn’t even choreographed-- the curtain was still down for the first few phrases of the score. It seems like a wasted opportunity as this is such a beautifully unusual melody. Perhaps Possokhov wanted the music alone to transport us and set the stage for what was to come.
The other two pieces on the program weren’t nearly as powerful. Beaux by Mark Morris was charming yet bizarre: a Martinů harpsichord concerto accompanied an all-male cast in wedgie-tight body suits and a military camouflage blob pattern but with hot pink and orange tones. It was light hearted and had some cool motifs including a man flying horizontally across the stage like a paper airplane on the raised arms of his comrades. There was also a the unfolding spiral with connected arms that was a nice touch.
The opener, Guide to Strange Places by John Adams was a stark and angry piece. Entangled knots of limbs churned to Adams’ brutal score, almost completely devoid of traditional melodic beauty. The backdrop was hideous-- a sort of spider web / running track lanes with a metallic looking blob throwing it all off. The dance moves were impressive but I was most bothered by choreographer Ashley Page’s disregard of the jarring silences in the music. Adams features these sudden pauses yet the dancers keep carrying out their moves as if going through the motions. It made me wonder-- what does this have to do with the music? Or are they just carrying out their technicalities while the music is playing in the background. Stravinsky also features strong silences and Possokhov understood them in his choreography, articulating them not necessarily with a literal pause, but with at least some kind of falling action level or transition in structure.