The Rite of Spring in Houston in front of Rosella Namok's “Marks on Sand, after King Tide” 2011.
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 20.03.13
Gallery: Booker-Lowe Gallery
Dates: 07.03.13 : 20.04.13
It's one hundred years since Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was first heard on May 29, 1913, at Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Hailed by the Oxford Dictionary of Dance as “a seminal moment in Modernism,” the premiere shocked its audience, nearly starting a riot among audience members with its unconventional music, Nijinsky's wild choreography, and a provocative storyline about a young woman chosen by her tribe as a sacrifice. Or it might just have been a response manipulated by its master-producer, Diaghilev?
Since then, many other choreographers have been inspired to try to match the music with both dance and design. The great Englishman, Kenneth MacMillan, for instance, employed Sid Nolan to re-imagine The Rite in a nightmarish vision of Aboriginal Australia. Nolan called the golden mushroom-shaped totem pole on one of his backcloths, ‘Moonboy’; but to Cold War audiences in London it seemed like the cloud of a nuclear bomb explosion. The dancers wore ochre red and brown unitards, marked with handprints, suggestive of the daubed bodies of Aboriginal peoples.
More recently, the Australian Ballet combined with Indigenous choreographer, Stephen Page's Bangarra to produce Rites – but left the design to a couple of non-Indigenous artists.
At last the real thing has broken through; in Houston, Texas, of all places.
Mind you, the local Ballet there is run by an Aussie – Stanton Welch, there since 2003, but from the Welch/Jones royal dancing dynasty back home. In Welch's words: “The full-company ballet taps into the themes of primitiveness, sexuality and sacrifice. So I'll explore primitive, primal movements, and emotion, while trying to capture what I have imagined since I first listened to this music as a child. There are so many wonderful versions of The Rite of Spring, and I hope to pay homage to the rich music and history of the story.”
To assist him Welch has seized upon artworks by Lockhart River Gang founder, Rosella Namok to hang behind his dancers. He saw her work at the local Booker-Lowe Art Gallery, which specialises in Aboriginal art, and is owned by Australia's Honorary Consul in Texas, Nana Booker. “I immediately felt connected to Rosella Namok’s work which was very Australian and captured the spirit of the music for The Rite of Spring,” the expat choreographer explained.
The works he chose to blow up from 120 x 190 cms to more than 10 x 20 metres are “Stinging Rain” and “Marks on Sand, after King Tide” - both with a watery flavour.
The Houston Chronicle liked the look: “This Rite looks fierce, as the entire company fill the stage in tribal-inspired finery. It also sounds fierce: Conductor Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra play Igor Stravinsky's famously raucous score with gusto. But it is surprisingly tame, even old-fashioned, with mother-father figures and a clear line, at one point, between the strong men out front and women swishing their tooshes in the shadows way upstage”.
Ah, that sounds like Aboriginal dance! Perhaps Welch was seeking to make a point of difference with a comparative outpouring of Texan outings for The Rite! Earlier in March, The Joffrey Ballet performed its famous 1987 reconstruction of the original Rite of Spring in Austin and San Antonio, Texas. And right afterwards, the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston presented another interpretation of the work by the acclaimed Chinese choreographer Shen Wei.
And Australia? I don't think Rite of Spring is on a single dance card here this year! Even the visit by the Bolshoi to Brisbane in May denies us a Rite. They had commissioned a new version for the centenary; but events surrounding the near-blinding of their Director in an 'inside' acid attack put that on the back-burner. Yes - the Melbourne Symphony and Australian World Orchestras will give performances of the score some time this year; but no dancing.
As a post-script, writing this piece has revealed that tribal is quite the flavour of the month. There's a Musqueam Magic Flute at the Vancouver Opera – Canadian Aborigines supplying fairytale couture and totemic designs. There's a Decca record of the Rite with colourful faux Bradshaw/Gwion figures on the cover. And in Germany, a residency in Bamburg for Australian composer Georges Lentz allowed him to install a recorded work featuring the improvisatory quartet The Noise to the accompaniment of a Kathleen Petyarre canvas.
An exhibition of Namok's work continues at the Booker-Lowe Gallery until 20th April.
Rosella Namok's 'Stinging Rain' which was used by Stanton Welch in his version of The Rite of Spring
A Zubin Mehta collection of Stravinsky recordings issued for The Rite's centenary with faux Bradshaw figure decoration.