A Ballet B.C. production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, May 7. Continues to May 9
When the original Rite of Spring opened in Paris in 1913, audiences were shocked to the point of outrage.
That description could also be used for the response of a few veteran crowd members after Ballet B.C. debuted its starkly avant-garde new RITE last night—though the outcry among the less adventurous amounted more to bewildered muttering than to yelling from the seats, as it did at the just over a century ago.
Strobe lights, pulsating synthesizer, and black bodysuits set against an Arctic-white set: Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar’s new RITE looks and feels unlike anything her audiences have seen before—fitting, when you consider she’s reimagining a work that changed dance forever. You have to give her credit for not playing it safe, for taking a risk and creating, with her able collaborators, an utterly eerie, alien world—one rigorously, uncompromisongly executed. And hey, it’s kind of nice to know that audiences can still be shocked. And awed.
The stage design was beyond striking. Omer Arbel created salt-encrusted, abstract “trees” that hung upside-down over the dancers, often appearing translucent, but alternately casting snaking shadows onto the floor and the back of the stage. James Proudfoot went all out with his lighting, sometimes capturing the black-foil-masked Connor Gnam in a strobe that made his convulsions look like flickery timelapse; at others he’d pay tribute to early cinema with a square spotlight that would close in on his subject. And then there were the searchlights that swept the stage maniacally.
Molnar’s starting point for the action was the moment when the original Rite ends, with the sacrifice and death of the Chosen One. The movement, making direct reference to Nijinsky’s original, built a strange vocabulary that marked the transition into the afterworld.
Androgynous dancers in black bodysuits moved like two-dimensional drawings: with their arms out, palms facing forward, and striding on demi-pointe, they looked a bit like the figures in ancient Egyptian art. There was little of the flow of regular ballet, and their faces were always zombie-straight.
The dancers were enacting strange, afterworld rites, crowding in on individuals, sometimes lifting them by some unseen energy emanating through their hands. Sometimes they’d hoist their partners upside-down, legs splayed and as motionless as mannequins. At one point, Darren Devaney and Tara Williamson extended out from each other like they were being pulled apart by an invisible force.
Molnar put the full company to work here, filling the stage with movement—bodies running, sliding, and marching, then exploding into chaotic writhing. It could look primal or robotic, lurching like one of those things in The Grudge one minute or striding like an android out of Ex Machina the next.
They were all driven by Jeremy Schmidt’s apocalyptic soundscape, his analog synths creating a heady, occasionally feedback-splattered atmosphere that felt piped in from some untouched corner of outer space. The effect, combined with the wild movement and the severe, Suprematist-like design, was all-consuming and discombobulating in the best kind of way. Not everyone agreed: one person overheard in the audience said it was “too much”. You’re going to have to take a walk on the wild side to decide for yourself.
On the surface, the other piece on the double bill, Spanish choreographer Gustavo Sansano’s new Consagración, was more familiar and accessible. Set to Igor Stravinsky’s original, game-changing Rite score, it featured dancers coupling in more balletic ways. The theme was sexual awakening, a suitable theme for spring.
But the piece was actually quite challenging and unconventional on a number of levels. It found the dancers dressed in too-small, doll-like nighties that it looked like they’d recently outgrown. Couples would try to pair, but their sexually charged relationships—men with women, men with men, women with women—never played out easily. Instead of connecting in a kiss, pairs would awkwardly miss, poking about their necks. Men would crouch on all fours, scrambling to contain the rolling, writhing bodies beneath them. Never literal, it was a physical embodiment of the awkwardness and pain that comes with first love. Occasionally the dancers connected: Christoph von Riedemann had a feral pas de deux with Livona Ellis, pulling her crotch against his leg, curling back in ecstasy, and stripping off his shirt. Kirsten Wicklund grabbed hungrily onto Small’s leg as he pulled her along. Rachel Meyer and Alexis Fletcher coiled into one another like cats.
It was restless and a bit difficult, that feeling exacerbated by the still-jarring music, which Sansano dissects and interprets with aplomb, finding its sense of yearning.
Consagración was also challenging on a visual level: long-time Sansano collaborator Luis Crespo created a striking grove of abstracted fabric-strip trees that threw stripes of shadow across the action. But they also bore a striking resemblance to a certain piece of female anatomy.
Some die-hard conservatives might disagree, but it is refreshing to see risks being taken in a funding-crunched era where caution seems to rule. No, this was not your average night out at the ballet—but then again, neither was that fateful evening in 1913.