This weekend the Eugene Ballet Company closes out their season by performing three of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballets:
• Rite of Spring
• Apollon Musagete (Apollo)
• Les Noces (The Wedding)
I was fortunate to attend their outstanding performance Saturday night.
Rite of Spring and Les Ballets Russes
Written in 1913, Rite of Spring is said to have been created in “the realm of Stravinsky’s unconscious” and “designed with no clear order but driven by pure gut feeling”.
At the turn-of-the-century, Russian artists rebelled against the predominance of European ideas in fashion, architecture, and music. They wanted to establish a “nationalist Russian identity” in their creations. Stravinsky’s teacher, composer Rimsky-Korsakov, was a powerful member of the “Mighty Handful” – artistic rebels and young composers in Saint Petersburg who wrote music that sounded Russian.
“Old Russian myths, epics, and fairy tales inspired them. They used folksongs and chants to give their music a Russian flavor.” Composers and producers like Stravinsky and Korsakov believed in the “artistic future of all things authentically Russian”. Their “lushly orchestrated music served as the soundtrack for lavish operas and ballets” performed at elaborate Imperial Theaters in Saint Petersburg.
In 1909 Sergei Diaghilev (a Russian art critic and ballet patron) created a new company called Les Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballets), which he claimed was built on “Parisian fantasies of old Russia”. A sensation in Western Europe, Les Ballets Russes was one of the most influential companies of the 20th century.
Stravinsky often spent summers in a Russian (Ukraine) village called Ustilug, observing old culture and watching village rituals celebrating planting and harvesting. He wanted to bring Russian music back to its origins of dance and found the “wild, enthusiastic mixture of song and noise” in these rituals fascinating. He “used the sophisticated symphony orchestra to evoke the wild power and sound of village music and how it felt to the people making it”.
Rite of Spring Première 1913
The 1913 première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was performed at Paris’s Théàtre des Champs Élysées. Stravinsky was nervous about performing his new “avant-garde” ballet. A ruckus broke out during the performance and “as the lights came up on the dancers, people started yelling, and a wild shouting match began”.
“Stravinsky had taken the orchestra, which was associated with high society and culture, and brought it to a carnal, bestial, earthy level. The audience made so much noise, the dancers couldn’t hear the music or stay in sync.”
Critics say Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring “redefined twentieth-century music”.
Eugene Ballet Rite of Spring Performance
Eugene Ballet’s performance of Rite of Spring was not as “raucous and scandalous” as its première in Paris, but almost 100 years later it still has that “intense, edgy, and almost out-of-control feeling that makes it as exhilarating and liberating as music can be”. The performance was choreographed by Artistic Director Toni Pimble, and Jennifer Martin was fantastic as lead. This weekend is Jennifer’s final performance as a principal dancer with the company. She’s retiring from the stage after eighteen seasons as a ballerina during which she danced more than 600 performances, including principal roles in all the major classical ballets. She will become the company’s full-time ballet mistress, a job she’s already doing part-time.
Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete was composed between 1927 and 1928. Ballet master George Balanchine choreographed the original work. It premiered in Paris in 1928 performed by Les Ballets Russes. Apollo was Balanchine’s first success and the beginning of his collaboration with Stravinsky. The ballet “features Balanchine’s renowned neoclassical style. He considered Apollo the turning point of his life, in its sustained oneness of tone and feeling”.
The story centers on Apollo, the Greek god of music, who is visited by three muses: Calliope, muse of poetry, Terpsichore, muse of dance and song, and Polyhymnia, muse of mime. The Apollo production was choreographed by Melissa Bobick, with Jennifer Martin as costume designer. Lead dancers included Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero, Yoshie Oshima, Betty Kondo, and Suzanne Haag. It was an exquisite performance!
Stravinsky began composing Les Noces shortly after he wrote Rite of Spring. The ballet is about a Russian wedding in the countryside. It premiered in 1923 and was performed by Les Ballets Russes at the Théâtre Gaîte-Lyrîqué in Paris. The ballet’s four scenes involve (1) blessing the bride, Natasia, (2) blessing the groom, Fétis, (3) departure of the bride for her wedding and the couple’s life together, and (4) the wedding feast. The wedding ceremony isn’t part of the ballet.
A critic describes Les Noces (The wedding) as “one of Les Ballets Russes most piquant works – reflecting sensibilities of old Russia and of the new Soviet Russia then struggling to be born”. The lead dancers last night were Yoshie Oshima as the bride and Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero as the groom. The Eugene Ballet’s performance of Les Noces included four vocal soloists and the Eugene Vocal Artists Ensemble conducted by Diane Retallack.