Culture & Conversation

Facing The Rite Music

The arrival of a new Rite of Spring inspires a kind of bloodlust among dance audiences.  Not for the maiden who we know is sacrificed in the end, but for the latest choreographer stepping up to the towering Goliath of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 score, arguably the seminal scandal that defined twentieth century music. Now, Belgian firebrand Stijn Celis adds his name to the long file of choreographers who flock to this irrepressible music, facing the historical gauntlet with his own The Rite of Spring, created on Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. The ballet for 24 dancers received its world premiere at Théâtre Maisonneuve Thursday March 26, on a double bill with a reprise of Shen Wei’s 2007 Re-,II.

In keeping with famous predecessors like Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch who re-envisioned Nijinsky’s original pagan ritual as an all-out war of the sexes, Celis situates the drama between polarizing male and female forces.

The women don shapeless white tops and loose skirts, accented with slashes of violent red; the men wear grey slacks and earth-tone dress shirts. The woozy, waking bassoon solo peels open a social scene: Spring couples tangle, twirl and fling with their full bodies at a frantic, mechanical clip, their code involving some swing dance moves too.  Forceful and busy, the main concern seems to get it all done in time.

Soon the men and the women separate out, and the clan’s gender dynamic emerges.  Here is where Celis‘ choreographic (re)vision is most compelling. To Stravinsky’s pulverizing polyrhythms, the women grind on. At once coquettish and severe, they jut and rock their pelvises, carve vicious arcs with scythe-like bodies and coil in and out of circles of incantation. Unlike many female depictions in Rite, these girls are no savages in heat. If Celis evokes brutality, it is through the cold, unflinching march of the cell.

The men, however, have grown weary, worn down. Heavy with earth and toil, they pull at their heads, heave and drop like flies. As the girls spin out of reach, male partners console and buttress each other. In one effective section in which male and female collectives share the stage, the guys beat rhythmically at their slackened chests as the women, in a kinetic frenzy on the opposite side, leap and shoot their arms in upward diagonals, bare feet raining percussively onto the floor as if to drive the boys further into the ground.

Given the ballet’s traditional foregone conclusion of female sacrifice, Celis’ persuasive reversal of gender victimhood is a pointed re-reading. But puzzlingly, this Rite too ends in a pretty standard ‘Danse sacrale’, a poor girl’s dance to the death, with the suddenly-macabre group hovering and convulsing nearby. While certain moments leading up to the solo are intriguing, like the Chosen One’s refuge in the arms of a man and the venom it then spreads, the final extended harakiri is a bit of a miss, dilutes the piece when it should make it gel. Not the time for a paradigm shift, nor an anxiety of influence, as Stravinsky’s strings start careening all over the place, brassy dissonances swell to a terrifying mass and everything tame is wiped to oblivion.  Despite some promising ideas and committed dancing in this Rite, the music, in its raw, ageless brilliance, remains indomitable.

The second piece on the program, a revival of Re-,II by Chinese choreographer Shen Wei (who incidentally also has a Rite under his belt), is a welcome palate-cleanser for those still wound-up from The Rite of Spring, although it is a wonder that the dancers manage the gear shift. Created on Les Grands in 2007 and inspired by the choreographer’s visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Re-,II is a three-part impressionistic tableau evoking stone friezes, gnarled roots, otherworldly birds and eons of time. Like sleek ribbons set into motion by breath, dancers are at once sinuous and sculpturesque, melt into the floor or propel each other in seamless contact. The images offered in the final section are of a rare and indelible beauty.

The final three performances of The Rite of Spring and Re-,II by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens run Thursday to Saturday, April 2, 3 and 4 at Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts. Tickets at 514-842-2112 or

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