This May marks the premiere of Wayne McGregor’s first work for American Ballet Theatre. The brilliant and highly original resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet has chosen as his debut a new production of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal and evergreen The Rite of Spring. Marking a new spring and a new century since its premiere, AFTERITE is also an exploration of the nature of movement, humanity and life itself. As McGregor has said, “The body is a living archive,” and through the confluence of the performers, artistic collaborators and the musical score, he probes the internal resonances of the body to bring this eternal spring to life.
From its scandalous premiere by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on May 29, 1913 in Paris to its most recent incarnations, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has proven to be a holy grail for choreographers, drawing more than 75 to date to tackle its complexities while inspiring primal reactions from audiences as well. While Vaslav Nijinsky was largely acclaimed for his legendary dancing, it was his choreography that scandalized Paris that night. As Stravinsky’s score shattered musical expectations, Nijinsky’s choreography abandoned all preconceived notions of what a ballet should be. A riot of shouting and fighting broke out in the theater drowning out the music. Similar chaos reigned backstage, as Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings bellowing counts to dancers baffled by the difficult rhythms and shifting moods of Stravinsky’s score.
After the performance, as Stravinsky and Nijinsky fled the theater, the audience, divided in their reactions, carried on the melee. Although only nine performances were completed amid the controversy in its world premiere season, just one year later, in the same city, the concert version of The Rite of Spring received a standing ovation. While retaining to this day the shock of the new, Stravinsky’s score has joined the canon of great classical works. Yet it still retains the birth cry of modernism and the rage and discomfort felt by the public as a primal response to this stark and uncompromising introduction to 20th century art. In this sense, The Rite of Spring is the very symbol of the modern age.
McGregor’s new production this season is not the first Rite for American Ballet Theatre. Glen Tetley’s highly successful contemporary production, originally created for Munich’s Bavarian State Opera Ballet in 1974, was set on ABT in 1976, and featured a stellar opening night cast that included Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martine van Hamel and Clark Tippet. Following a traditional scenario and musical impulse, Tetley’s stunning, dynamically theatrical interpretation utilized his personal choreographic language, a blend, unique for the time, of classic modern and ballet vocabulary, and it proved to be a popular work for the Company. Unlike the original, Tetley cast a man in the leading role of the Chosen One, or victim of the rite. In a harrowing, inexorable progression, the work built to the sacrifice of the chosen youth, and in a final coup de théâtre, he was drawn aloft in an explosion of energy.
For the setting of his AFTERITE, McGregor has abandoned a lush fertile landscape and chosen the Atacama Desert of South America, a desolate patch of earth among the driest on the planet, and a landscape often equated with that of Mars. With its high altitude and perpetually clear skies, the stars are its most vivid aspect. But beneath this infinite sky, deep in the dry earth are the remains of lost human civilizations, both the ancient dwellers of millennia past, whose mummified remains have offered clues to the earliest known incidence of cancer in humans, and the 20th century remains of the murdered enemies of Chile’s brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose bodies were buried in this remote place never again to be recovered. Thus in this barren land between the infinite stars and the infinitesimal grains of dust, pure human energy resonates. Echoing this image, Nicholas Roerich, designer of the original Rite, wrote in a letter to Diaghilev that his primary intention was that the work should embody “the beautiful cosmogony of earth and sky.”
An ardent collaborator, McGregor rarely works with an existing musical text but he was first compelled to approach this score by an invitation from the Bolshoi Ballet in 2013, the 100th anniversary of the premiere. Ironically, this definitively Russian ballet has never had a major Russian staging, but subsequent turmoil in the Bolshoi cancelled the project. As it lingered in McGregor’s mind, ABT offered the opportunity to create the work, and he was ready for the leap. Small in scale by the usual standards of most productions—McGregor’s vision is focused on merely 15 dancers, 13 adults and 2 children—this telescoping of the community into its smallest number allows for an intimacy and an emphasis on the individual that most larger scale productions avoid. In no way an “illustration” of the score, he responds instead to its “rawness and emotional intensity” with an intimate, detailed response, replacing the unison movements most frequently utilized to match the power of Stravinsky’s aural statement with a multiplicity of physical voices, zeroing in on the smallest of elements that in sum may define the massiveness and cathartic pulse of the score.
For the brilliant dancers of American Ballet Theatre, this is not only a chance to explore the work of a major choreographer’s process but an opportunity to reach within themselves, and in McGregor’s words, “to unearth their physical stories.” Indeed, it is never his intention to place movement onto them but rather, “the dancers teach me what I want to make.” He responds to them directly in the moment in a process he refers to as “foraging,” and says his task is to find the ecosystem of the work by allowing the dancers to “misbehave more beautifully, and more often.”
In this sense, ABT is also reaching back to its maverick origins as a company of original works, of experimentations within the form that defined its earliest seasons in the works of Tudor, Balanchine, de Mille and Robbins. In his rich, collaborative process, McGregor’s methods recall the tradition that began with Diaghilev, who pioneered an art form that involved the collaboration of the designer as “auteur.” As Roerich was a prime mover and a co-creator of the Diaghilev The Rite of Spring, so McGregor’s collaborative team, Lucy Carter (Lighting Design), Vicki Mortimer (Set and Costume Design) and Ravi Deepres (Video Design) are, along with the dancers and score, active creators of the world that the work inhabits.
AFTERITE is a reaching back to move forward with the promised thaw of spring, a fresh and new approach to a score that has come to define the modern age, the cracking of the ice of preconceived ideas of dance, music and theater.
James Sutton, teacher, choreographer and writer, was an Associate Professor of Dance at Tisch School of the Arts/NYU. He is an Associate at Ballet Review and the 2015 recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award from the American Dance Festival.