As thunder and lightning raged outside last week, choreographer Adam Hougland rehearsed Alexandra Bergman and Sofia Menteguiaga in the role of "The Chosen One" in a Tulsa Ballet studio. The ballerinas' long hair tumbled into their faces as the rain beat loudly on the windows.
"It really is The Rite of Spring!" Hougland laughed.
When the Ballets Russes presented the original production of The Rite of Spring in 1913, Igor Stravinsky's music and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreographpy created a metaphorical thunderstorm in the dance world. Its angular, almost brutal depiction of a primitive fertility rite sent the Parisian audience into a fist-fighting frenzy.
But it was all in a day's work for impresario Serge Diaghilev, who started the Ballets Russes as a crucible for collaboration between some of the most revolutionary artists working at the time: George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Stravinsky, Picasso, and Chagall, to name only a few.
Mixed Bag. Incredible passion and creativity accompany Tulsa Ballet's performances during "A Ballets Russes Evening."
Tulsa Ballet (TB) boasts a direct link to the Ballets Russes through its founders, Moscelyne Larkin and Roman Jasinski, who danced with later incarnations of that company and brought its repertoire and its mission of passionate creativity to the company they started here in 1956.
This weekend at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center -- March 30 and 31 at 8pm and April 1 at 3 pm -- TB celebrates its founders and the company's historical pedigree with "A Ballets Russes Evening." The program includes Hougland's 2009 version of The Rite of Spring as well as Balanchine's 1928 Apollo (with costumes by Coco Chanel) and the 1911 post-Romantic virtuoso duet Le Spectre de la Rose, both landmark works in the 20th-century ballet canon.
Hougland, a Juilliard alumnus and resident choreographer at Cincinnati Ballet and Louisville Ballet, was one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2011. He works with the esteemed set and costume designer Marion Williams to make contemporary ballets with a strongly theatrical sensibility.
Hougland noted that his Rite of Spring, created for New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan, was influenced by the technique and dramatic power of Martha Graham, as well as by Pina Bausch's version of the ballet, parts of which appear in Wim Wenders' Oscar-nominated documentary Pina. But while Bausch's Rite is "very earthy," Hougland describes the inhabitants of his ballet's world as "more like insects, or machines. They're not really people.
"It's a post-apocalyptic kind of world," he continued. "I feel like the original Rite was about reverence for the earth, thanking whoever for everything we have, so we'll offer up this sacrificial lamb. But we're really not connected to our environment anymore. So I wanted to have a group that was divorced from anything human, natural or beautiful, and then plunk somebody in there who is the last representation of anything beautiful or feminine or alive, and just let her be destroyed by these people who have no connection to what she represents. I think it's a little bit more timely now."
Apollo was no less revolutionary than The Rite of Spring, launching the then-24-year-old Balanchine into a phase of his career that would transform the art form forever.
Marking the beginning of what is called "abstract" ballet, Apollo is a pure dance work set to lyrical music by Stravinsky. It takes us into the psyche of the Greek god of music and his companions, the muses Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore, limning their spiritual essences in delicate, sculptural, powerful movement. The playful, majestic role of Apollo, long considered one of the major roles in all of ballet, will be shared by Wang Yi and Alfonso Martin.
Le Spectre de la Rose also prominently features a male dancer -- this time in a role that is famously punishing. Jasinski himself called the part of the Rose "murder," and TB artistic director Marcello Angelini recalls "finishing the work with my nose bleeding every single show."
Dynamic young company members Yoshihisa Arai, Jose Antonio Checa, and Rodrigo Hermesmeyer will each get a crack at the legendary part, with Beatrice Sebelin and Soo Youn Cho sharing the role of the woman whose dream after a ball conjures a vision of the rose in her hand coming to life.
TB kicked off the Ballets Russes celebration with its first-ever fundraising gala, "Icons & Idols," held at the Tulsa Convention Center on March 16. The event featured an auction, a raffle, and performances by company dancers. Surrounding the ballroom was a magnificent collection of dozens of vintage costumes, backdrops, notes and photographs from TB's history, items which are being archived and catalogued by Cheryl Forrest, Georgia Snoke, and members of the TB staff.
Forrest and Snoke, who co-authored Roman Jasinski: A Gypsy Prince from the Ballet Russe in 2008, have been astonished at the discoveries they've made as they sift through the archives.
"There have been lots of surprises, things going back all the way to Ballets Russes days, and also things that Angelini has brought to the company that are links to that era," Forrest said. "As people have heard we're putting a collection together, they've started bringing things in like a program from a recital held here by Eva Matlagova in 1936 which prominently features the young Miss Larkin (Matlagova's daughter).
"This is a growing and important collection," Forrest said. "We hope to be able to hang and photograph everything. It's amazing to see the continuous story line from the Ballets Russes to the present-day TB."
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