This weekend the Eugene Ballet Company closes out their season by performing three of Igor Stravinsky’s ballets:
• The Rite of Spring
• Apollon Musagete (Apollo)
• Les Noces (The Wedding)
I was fortunate to attend their outstanding performance Saturday night.
The Rite of Spring and Les Ballets Russes
Critics say Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring “redefined 20th-century music”. Written in 1913 it 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”.
During the turn-of-the-century Russian artists rebelled against the predominance of European ideas in fashion, architecture, and music. They wanted to show a “nationalist Russian identity” in their creations. Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, was a powerful member of the “Mighty Handful” – a group of artistic rebels and young composers in Saint Petersburg who began writing music that sounded truly Russian. “Old Russian myths, epics, and fairy tales inspired them and they used folksongs and chants to give their music a very particular Russian flavor.” Composers and producers like Stravinsky and Korsakov believed in the “artistic future of all things authentically Russian” and provided “lushly orchestrated music that served as the soundtrack for lavish operas and ballets” performed at the Russian Imperial Theater 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”. It was a sensation in Western Europe and became one of the most influential ballet companies of the 20th century.
Stravinsky often spent summers in a Russian village called Ustilug observing old Russian culture and watching village rituals celebrating planting and harvesting. He wanted to bring Russian music back to its origins of dance and found their “wild, enthusiastic mixture of song and noise” fascinating. He “wanted to use the sophisticated symphony orchestra to evoke the wild power of village music – the way it sounded and the way it must have felt to the people making it”.
The 1913 première of The Rite of Spring was in 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 first tableau of dancers, people began yelling, and a wilder and wilder shouting match began. It became difficult to hear the music”.
“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 that the dancers could not hear the music or stay in sync.”
Last night’s performance of The Rite of Spring was not as raucous and scandalous as its première in Paris but almost 100 years later it still has that “edgy, intense, 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 in the ballet. This weekend is Jennifer’s final performance as a principal dancer with the company. She is retiring from the stage after 18 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 is already doing part time.
Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete was composed between 1927 and 1928. Originally choreographed by ballet master George Balanchine it premiered in Paris in 1928 and was performed by Les Ballets Russes. Apollo was Balanchine’s first success and the beginning of his collaboration with Stravinsky. The ballet “features the neoclassical style for which Balanchine was to become renowned. He looked upon Apollo as 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: Terpsichore, muse of dance and song; Polyhymnia, muse of mime; and Calliope, muse of poetry. The Eugene Ballet’s production of Apollo was choreographed by Melissa Bobick with Jennifer Martin as costume designer. The lead dancers included Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero, Yoshie Oshima, Betty Kondo, and Suzanne Haag. It was an exquisite performance!
Stravinsky began composing the music and words for Les Noces shortly after The Rite of Spring. The ballet is about a wedding in the Russian countryside. It premiered in 1923 and was performed by Les Ballets Russes at the Théâtre Gaîte-Lyrîqué in Paris. The four scenes of the ballet involve (1) the blessing of the bride, Natasia, (2) the blessing of the groom, Fétis, (3) the departure of the bride for her wedding and the couple’s life together, and (4) the wedding feast. The wedding ceremony is not part of the ballet.
One critic describes Les Noces (The wedding) as “one of Les Ballets Russes most piquant works – reflecting the 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 impressive performance of Les Noces also included four vocal soloists and the Eugene Vocal Artists Ensemble conducted by Diane Retallack.