'Tis the season

A ballet worth rioting over? Stanton Welch puts a new twist on the daunting "Rite of Spring"

A ballet worth rioting over? Stanton Welch puts a new twist on the daunting "Rite of Spring"

Houston Ballet presents The Rite Of Spring
Houston Ballet's The Rite of Spring with dancer Charles-Louis Yoshiyama. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Spring is a time of renewal, but winter doesn’t always go quietly.

As Houston Ballet prepares for its latest mixed repertory program, there’s definitely a sense of newness in the air with Thursday's opening night almost here. The program features two world premieres — artistic director Stanton Welch’s interpretation of “The Rite of Spring” and emerging choreographer Edwaard Liang’s “Murmurations” — and a Houston Ballet premiere of Mark Morris’s sweet and floral “Pacific.”

Sweet and floral: that’s what we hope for from spring. But it would be hard to associate those terms with the both iconic and iconoclastic “The Rite of Spring” otherwise known by its French title “Le Sacre du printemps.” Many think of the premiere in 1913 of this collaboration between composer Igor Stravinsky and dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky as the battle cry of modernism, which seems to witness an outbreak of war between the old and the new. The dissonant, emphatic, and experimental nature of both the music and the dance nearly caused a riot in the theater at its premiere.

The plot of the ballet involves a ritual of renewal. A young girl (the Chosen One) is selected as sacrificial victim to bring fecundity back to the earth. In spite of decidedly mixed feelings at the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” and in spite of the loss of Nijinsky’s original choreography, until it was recreated by Millicent Hodson for the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s, the “Rite” has become a rite of passage for choreographers and dancers.

 The dissonant, emphatic, and experimental nature of both the music and the dance nearly caused a riot in the theater at its premiere. 

Martha Graham danced the part of the Chosen One in Leonid Massine’s version in 1930 and later choreographed her own “Rite” at the end of her career; Lester Horton created the first American version in 1937 set in the Wild West with Native American dance; and significant productions by Mary Wigman, Kenneth MacMillan, Maurice Bejart, Pina Bausch, Glen Tetley and others are regularly performed.

Some of the most stellar moments in Wim Wenders' stirring tribute to Pina Bausch, Pina, which I first saw in 3D the Houston’s 2011 Cinema Arts Festival, came from her fiery and influential “Rite.”

In fact, there’s a veritable orgy of “Rites” this spring at the centennial anniversary of Nijinsky’s original. The Joffrey Ballet just performed Hodson’s reconstruction in Austin and Houston’s Society for the Performing Arts will present innovative choreographer Shen Wei’s “Rite of Spring” in May:

Stanton Welch found inspiration not only in Stravinsky’s groundbreaking music but in Australian aboriginal culture. In a video interview, he describes encountering the art of Rosella Namok in Houston’s Booker Lowe Gallery. Although inspired by Namok’s paintings, the setting of Welch’s “Rite” is more general

“The Rite of Spring” offers ambitious choreographers a great provocation and the chance to test their mettle against an iconic event in the history of dance. It may leave audience members wondering if they’ve seen a dance worth rioting over.

Taiwanese-born Edwaard Liang has wowed audiences first as a dancer in the New York City Ballet, later as a lead in the Tony Award winning cast of Fosse, and finally with with Nederlands Dans Theater under Jiri Kylian. Now a sought-after choreographer, Liang has premiered several new works in just the last year or so for the Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet in addition to Houston Ballet’s commission “Murmurations.”

Here’s an excerpt from the Joffrey Ballet’s 2008 production of Liang’s elegant if also frenetic “Age of Innocence,” which is set to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman:

It’s hard not to be pleased to see another Mark Morris dance entering the Houston Ballet repertory, especially after stellar recent performances of the “Sandpaper Ballet” and “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.” In the midst of praising Morris’s musicality, he admitted that “Pacific” was the first Morris ballet he saw performed. Set to a Lou Harrison trio for violin, cello, and piano, “Pacific” is, according to Seattle critic Moira Macdonald, “a quiet ballet, gentle as a sigh; its jumps seem to longer in the air like the scent of spring.”

After all the riot and sacrifice of “Rite of Spring,” a gentle sigh sounds just right.

"The Rite of Spring" runs Thursday through March 17 at Wortham Theater Center.

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