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Reliving the birth of modernism through a postmodern sensibility

Ballet of the Dolls
Photo by Justin A. Austin
Ballet of the Dolls performs “The Sacrifice,” Part II of “The Rite of Spring.”

On May 29, 1913, one of the wildest nights in dance and music history ushered in a 20th-century aesthetic: modern art. That evening, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, impresario Serge Diaghilev premiered “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)” with a revolutionary score by Igor Stravinsky and choreography for The Ballet Russes by Vaslav Nijinsky.
The Romantic ballet audiences were accustomed to featured lush and surging orchestral scores and ethereal ballet dancers enacting fairy tales of otherworldly sylphs and lost loves driven mad. “Le Sacre” was a shock. A pagan tale of virgin sacrifice elucidated with grounded, pigeon-toed footwork, flattened earthbound poses and rhythmically complex choreography set to a fiercely dissonant score caused a riot.

Often referred to as a “scandal” for the choreography’s sexual and primitive overtones, underscored by the music, the performance was drowned out in screams and catcalls. Apparently pro and anti factions came to fisticuffs in the aisles. Nijinsky, his coattails held by Stravinsky, leaned from the wings almost onto the stage, yelling out the counts to the dancers. Diaghilev flicked the lights on and off to restore order. The police arrived, but with limited effect.
What choreographer wouldn’t be tempted, and intimidated, by such a history and Stravinsky’s score?

A natural fit
Myron Johnson, the founder and artistic director of Ballet of the Dolls, certainly has been. A theatrical troupe that excels at Johnson’s gender-bending, transgressive, cabaret-style approaches to often fin de siècle themes, the Dolls seem a natural and ungodly fit for such an undertaking. 

“I’ve been wanting to do ‘Rite’ forever,” Johnson said. “But I never had a strong idea of how I wanted to do it. Then I was reading about the premiere and I started thinking about what would be risky artistically, because [what Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky accomplished] was risky for them at that time.” At the same time, he added, “I wasn’t thinking, ‘What can I do to make an audience react like that,’ because really, audiences today have seen it all.”
The riskiest approach for Johnson, he continued, was to invite two other companies to collaborate — and not just two other ballet companies. “I thought what would be really risky for me would be to invite in two completely different aesthetics and not have any control of what they do, cause I’m a total control freak. What would happen if I called people in and said, “Here, do whatever you want, just don’t tell me.’?” The result, a three-part “Rite of Spring,” premieres this weekend.
Johnson invited Susana di Palma, founder and artistic director of Zorongo Flamenco, to create Part I, which is traditionally known as “The Adoration of the Earth.” Said Johnson: “I really have this thing about Susana. Her passion is just phenomenal.”

Zorongo Flamenco
Photo by Drew Trampe
Zorongo Flamenco’s Susana di Palma performs in Part I.

About her section, which she’ll perform with three other flamenco dancers, di Palma said, “Spring is violent and sad, with plants pushing up through the ground that might not make it with a sudden snow. So my section isn’t terribly joyful.”
Stravinsky, plus heavy metal
Johnson and the Dolls perform Part II, traditionally known as “The Sacrifice,” with Zhauna Franks as the virgin. “This section feels very different for me,” Johnson said. “The choreography is modern and uses simple forms.” Johnson said he’s using the opening of the second section of Stravinsky’s score, then incorporating music by Fantômas, an avant-garde, heavy-metal band named for the villainous protagonist of a series of French crime novels popular before World War I.

Live Action Set performs "And Then What," featuring Megan Odell.
Photo by Eric Melzer
Live Action Set performs “And Then What,” featuring Megan Odell.

Johnson decided to break with tradition and add a third section, titled “And Then What,” which is being choreographed and performed by Live Action Set, a movement-theater group.   The section will propose a post-sacrifice “world in which anything can happen,” said company member Vanessa Voskuil, and will use excerpts from Stravinsky’s score as well as “Musik in Deutschland 1950-2000: Experimentelles Musiktheater.”
“It’s either going to be wonderful, or a disaster. And even if it’s a disaster, it’ll be wonderful, just because it was such a risky thing to do,” Johnson said. “It’s got all of us excited.”
What: “Rite of Spring”
When: 8 p.m. Thu-Sat, 2 p.m. Sun; Ends June 8
Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. N.E. Mpls.
How much: $23-$27
Phone: 612-436-1129

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