The “Rite,” with an Unexpected Contribution from Crickets

United StatesUnited StatesGould, Adams, Khachaturian, Stravinsky: The Joffrey Ballet, Ashley Wheater (artistic director), Joela Jones (piano), Cleveland Orchestra, Tito Muñoz (conductor) Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. 18.8.2013 (MSJ)

Gould: Interplay
Adams: Son of Chamber Symphony
Khachaturian: “Adagio” from Spartacus
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring is such an effective piece of music theater in its own right, it is rarely presented as a ballet any more. So getting to watch it with dancers is a treat. Getting to watch it with the lithe and powerful dancers of the Joffrey Ballet is a double treat. Pairing them with the Cleveland Orchestra makes it a triple treat. When you add a reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography created to match Igor Stravinsky’s mould-breaking music, the result knocks it out of the park.

Despite being a fan of classical ballet music, I’ve never been much of a follower of dance in general. I realized just how powerful it can be Sunday evening, watching the masses of quirky, jerky, obsessive, propulsive movement as the dancers of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet hurled themselves across the stage. Completing the powerful reconstitution of the original 1913 production was the use of designer Nicholas Roerich’s costume designs and scenic backdrops. Costumes, setting, ritualistic dance, and Stravinsky’s fractured folk-music primitivism combined to demonstrate that this still has the power to stun.

I’m not certain whether Blossom pavilion’s orchestra pit skewed a few balances, or if it was simply a by-product of Jonathan McPhee’s scaled-down orchestration, but there were a few melodic lines which were lost to overly prominent accompaniment. On the other hand, the raucously visceral tuba was a wonderful nod to the orchestra’s former principal tubist, Ronald Bishop, who passed away July 25. But Tito Muñoz and the orchestra gave an earthy, expressive performance, similar in tempo but very different in feel from the two lucid but emotionally cool ones I’ve heard the Clevelanders give under Pierre Boulez in the past two decades. For all Boulez’s undeniable clarity and logic, I never really felt that he got under skin of the piece. Muñoz reduced some passages to excitable dash, but he gave the players many opportunities in the score’s quieter parts to give the notes earthy personality, evoking the pagan Russian setting that Stravinsky and his collaborators envisioned. Muñoz and the orchestra made sure that modern virtuosity did not domesticate this beast, but rather supercharged it to match the vigor of the dancing.

And then came one of the most magical things I have ever experienced at any concert: Blossom being, of course, an outdoor venue, three sides of the pavilion are open, and this late in the season, crickets can be heard in abundance. Granted, crickets are more a rite of fall than spring, but the natural sound is not inappropriate to hear in a ballet about earth patterns, and the combined joy and fear of the humans who depend on them. But during the introduction to Part Two, as Gerard Charles (the elder shaman) slowly traced sacred circles on the ground, an amazing thing happened. Right as he finished the double circle and the stage lights outlining them began pulsing, the chirping crickets outside drifted into synchronization, rhythmically matching the orchestra’s pace and the dancer’s swaying. For a long moment, performers, audience and the surrounding world were all at one. Perhaps some real conjuring power lurks in such art. Our world is full of stranger things.

The rest of the Rite was hardly less magical. Part One was driven by mass movements of the ballet corps as youths, maidens, and elders preparing a pagan tribe’s spring fertility ritual. Part Two culminated with the mad spinning and leaping of the Chosen One, with Elizabeth Hansen dancing to her death with desperate flair. Robert Joffrey’s pairing was inspired: Millicent Hodson to reconstruct Nijinsky’s choreography and Kenneth Archer to reconstitute Roerich’s costumes and scenery. Primitivism in the arts became a cliche after a few decades, but coming face-to-face with it in The Rite of Spring remains one of the most unforgettable experiences in the art of the twentieth century.

The first half of the evening made for some strange bedfellows, starting with Morton Gould’s ballet Interplay. Since his death, Gould isn’t much heard on American orchestral programs except for an occasional airing of his brilliant variations on the Civil War-era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” known as American Salute. Even in terms of ballet, he’s probably more remembered for Fall River Legend, a portrayal of the Lizzie Borden story in dance. Interplay came about when choreographer Jerome Robbins heard the premiere of a short piano concerto Gould wrote for José Iturbi in 1943. Robbins wanted to create a non-narrative ballet that mixed classical and popular dance, just as Gould’s music bridged the gap between concert music, big-band jazz and boogie-woogie pop.

The pianist here was the orchestra’s own Joela Jones, who took advantage of Muñoz’s tempos—slightly more spacious than Gould’s own 1960 recording—to shape the solo part with more subtlety than the composer did. But there was still plenty of vitality to propel the dancers through Robbins’ charming moves. Both choreography and music were pointed reminders that the boisterous social and sexual upheavals to come in the 1960s were foreshadowed by the pop culture of the preceding decades.

Next up was a recently created ballet version of John Adams’ 2007 sequel to his first Chamber Symphony, known as Son of Chamber Symphony. Darker than the earlier work, Son is an arresting example of Adams’ brooding mix of post-minimalist maximalism with cinematic sweep. My friend Dawn aptly and happily described parts of it as sounding “like a demented music-box.” My first encounter with the score swept me up so much that at times I forgot to pay attention to the dancing, fine though it was. Stanton Welch’s choreography transformed traditional ballet gestures into spiky yet elegant modern moves, replete with deconstructualized costumes, including some curiously springy tutus. But Muñoz and the orchestra stole the show.

Moving from John Adams to Aram Khachaturian was not a smooth transition, but I suppose something more traditionally romantic had to be included on the program. The music was the “Adagio”—well, most of it—from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus. Those accustomed to hearing the lush wallow in concert would have realized that a chunk was rather awkwardly cut from the Joffrey performance, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov; presumably the more martial contrasting section of the “Adagio” was plot-driven and/or called for more dancers, so it was removed here to focus on the sensual love-dance of Phrygia and Spartacus, danced longingly by Victoria Jaiani and Temor Suluashvili. Musically, however, the omitted passage stokes the fires and causes the return of the main theme to erupt more passionately. Whatever the practical considerations, it was a poor choice, though the gorgeous dancing of the two principals carried the day. It would have been a pleasure to hear that extra minute or two performed as gorgeously as Muñoz and the Clevelanders did the rest.

Mark Sebastian Jordan