Igor Stravinsky's great ballet scores date from the early decades of the last century, but they still stand as groundbreaking landmark works, and no composer since has come close to having a similar impact on dance. Contemporary choreographers continue to be drawn to his scores, creating their own idiosyncratic interpretations to this music, while the original productions stand as iconic. The choreography for Petrushka (1911) and Apollo (1928) has been maintained in versions close to their originals, by Michel Fokine and George Balanchine respectively, thanks to their ongoing performance history.
Stravinsky Onstage, a two-part offering of Lincoln Center's "New Visions" series, will bring together several 21st-century investigations of these scores, as interpreted by two distinctly original creators. Next month, Basil Twist, whose mastery of fantastical imagery makes the term "puppeteer" seem limited, returns with an encore of the innovative production of Petrushka commissioned by Lincoln Center in 2001. In June, iconoclastic British choreographer Michael Clark makes a long-overdue return to New York with his Stravinsky Project‹a triptych of ballets set to Apollo, The Rite of Spring and Les Noces.
Twist's Petrushka, performed to the two-piano version of the score, adds new layers to the touching, bittersweet tale of three puppets: the wistful clown who languishes ineffectually as the heartless ballerina prefers the more worldly, brutish Moor. In the Fokine ballet, dancers work hard, through clever costuming, make-up, and stylized choreography, to become believable puppet figures, while also conveying the characters' essential humanity. But in Twist's world, three four-foot puppets, each manipulated by three unseen puppeteers, portray the characters, while additional scene-setting elements and characters are portrayed through Twist's distinctive ability to create magic out of fabric and shapes set in motion. Twist skillfully blends two different puppet traditions: Japanese Bunraku, which features large complex puppets, requiring three handlers apiece, and Czech black theater, in which the lighting allows the puppeteers to remain unseen.
"To call Twist a puppeteer is missing the point‹he's a master choreographer who happens to work with puppets," wrote Terry Teachout in the Washington Post. Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times also came under Petrushka's spell, calling it "a work of unadulterated fantasy, whimsy and soulfulness."
Michael Clark emerged in the 1980s as a defiant, brazen new voice of British dance, and he carried the labels of "bad boy" and "enfant terrible" for years. Once a golden boy at the Royal Ballet School for whom many predicted a brilliant career performing the classics, he turned his back on that world and took his technique in a much more contemporary direction. His works (in which his own exceptional dancing continued to leave critics reaching for superlatives) were bold, trendy, and immediate. He incorporated the pop music that captivated him early on, audacious costumes, and outrageous, often blatantly sexual content in the rather prim ballet world. "He loved to play the part of provocative extremist," wrote Debra Craine, the Times of London's dance critic.
He was busy and in demand throughout the 80s, choreographing for the Paris Opera Ballet and Ballet Rambert in addition to his own troupe. During the mid-'90s, he withdrew from the scene entirely for several years, going back to hometown in Scotland to deal with personal issues and recharge, and re-emerged creatively just as the new century launched.
Before retreating back to Scotland, he had created two works to Stravinsky scores that were not then fully developed. In 1992, he created Mmm... (which, in a typically cheeky move, stood for Michael's Modern Masterpiece), his version of The Rite of Spring, featuring costumes by the often outrageous cultural icon Leigh Bowery. Clark was fascinated by the theme of sacrifice in the scenario, particularly the urgent solo in which the chosen victim must dance herself to death. O was his 1994 version of Apollo and represented a sense of daring, since hardly any choreographers have approached the score from which Balanchine created his luminous, enduring ballet.
In recent years, Clark has returned to Stravinsky, reshaping those earlier works and creating I Do, his version of Les Noces, to complete a trilogy that was presented in annual installments at London's Barbican Centre, where Clark is an artistic associate. All three were presented together on an ambitious program there last fall. For Great Performers, O will share an evening with several other Clark works, while Mmm... and I Do will make up a second program.
Clark launched the trilogy with O, as though to begin with the most serene score before venturing into the primal, ritualistic turbulence of Sacre and Les Noces. "I was attracted to Apollo because in the past my work has been Dionysian rather than Apollonian. It has been about embracing chaos rather than order," he told an interviewer shortly after the September 2005 premiere of the revised dance. He no longer performs the role of the young god, as he did in 1992, but does make a brief appearance in the dance, which alludes to the Balanchine choreography and its cast of characters while maintaining a pristinely abstract look.
Clark appreciates the bravado of tackling these celebrated scores. "The Rite of Spring, there are loads of them‹it's just irresistible music. But Apollo and Les Noces are the toughest, because there are perfect versions already," he said. Yet he was inspired to take on Les Noces, despite the complexity of the score. "I had someone help me count the music, because the way Stravinsky chose to write it, it's not really how you would naturally count music."
Clark recognizes that in the context of Les Noces, marriage is not necessarily an appreciated institution for everyone involved. "In the ballet, the wife-to-be is terrified. Apparently, in Russia it used to be a horrible thing to be married because the woman was leaving her freedom and family behind. It was basically an arranged marriage. ...It's the terror that really shocked me."
Susan Reiter writes frequently about the arts.