Waiting For the Spring
We cannot really say to what extent the artists behind the 1913 pre-war spring Paris world premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (the original title of The Rite of Spring) awaited a scandal. Because that is what followed and it was no little matter. It was caused not only by the cacophonic music of Igor Stravinsky, but also by the choreography of Vaclav Nijinsky that showed none of the grace of classical ballet. According to eyewitnesses (e.g. the testimony of the American writer and photographer Carl van Vechten) the infuriated spectators roared so vehemently that the dancers could not hear the orchestra and Nijinsky had to beat the rhythm by banging the portal. It must have been tense experience for all involved, on and off the stage. The Parisian audience, which enjoyed Russian ballet for several seasons, had already acquainted itself with Stravinsky's melodically strange music in the productions of The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), this time it was considered by many a severe crossing out of line. Diaghilev's Russian seasons in Paris had become in a sense fashionable and were certainly not attended only by seekers of “new forms”. Each new production was supposed to present some impressive novelties (especially in stage design and choreography), but such a consistent gesture directed against all expectations of the paying audience was just too much.
The libretto of The Rite of Spring was written by Stravinsky together with the philosopher, mystic, ethnographer, archeologist, geophysicist and painter Nicholas Roerich, who was also the creator of the not very innovative mise en scene with the motive of a natural setting (however, the back of the stage – just as Roerich's paintings – took one's fancy with its striking, symbolically conceived coloring). According to Stravinsky's words his concept was based on a vision, in which he caught sight of a young girl dancing the antemortem sacrifice dance in front of an audience of “wise patriarchs”. Even though the ballet was based on Russian folklore (the subtitle being Pictures of pagan Russia), it did not present its descriptive imitation but rather a fanciful theatrical fiction. It was provocative in the sense of ignoring the rooted “civilization” morals. An innocent girl is selected (chosen) and sacrificed to the god of spring. There is no rejection of nor agreement with this act stated. The sacrifice is presented as natural necessity in the cycle of nature.
We can look closer at the original version of choreography, and the whole Parisian production including stage design in an American theatre reconstruction captured in a film document (Joffrey Bollet, 1987, the author of the reconstruction was Millicent Hodson). The dancers – male and female – create visually spectacular groups, constantly changing. They promenade most often in round dance, dressed in stylized variations on Russian folk costumes, as we know them from classical film fairytales. The girls dance a “chorovod” (Russian dance), and one of them is “chosen” as the sacrifice. She dances an ecstatic antemortem dance that she intensifies up to a state, in which (as if she was high on drugs) the soul leaves the body, tossed from side to side by puppet-like twitching. She then falls to the ground, exhausted, the “patriarchs” raise her - the spring is blessed by the human sacrifice.
After its first production, The Rite of Spring was often interpreted on stage by classic ballet artists as well as by those specializing in various types of expressive dance or physical theatre. As if the legendary title challenged artists to attempt to overcome the ever shifting limits by the force of one's own individuality. Marta Graham, Maurice Béjart, John Neumeier, Pina Bausch – only some of the names one associates with Stravinsky's opus. The extent to which the work is “updated”, varies a lot, and so does the authorial originality of the productions of The Rite of Spring. However, they almost always contain gradation that leads to the ceremonial act of sacrifice.
■ The Handa Gote production of The Rite of Spring at Alfred ve dvoře theatre lacks an easily distinguishable directorial or dramaturgical concept. The production does not develop, gradate, it does not lead to some climax or catharsis, it “only” exists. However, we feel that there is some sense to all this. The production makes fun of us rather than lead us to some kind of “solution”. It uses very delicate humor, yet very grossly put, reminding one of elephants dancing in porcelain. Nevertheless, Handa Gote's The Rite of Spring is at the same time serious, and regardless of the impression that uncontrollable chaos reigns, it is carefully prepared and open to interpretations. Even though it is a rather doubtful attempt, we have no other option than to walk on thin ice and try to trace some inner and outer connections.
Who or what are the characters, who hide their faces in masks of thin white stockings and their bodies in many-layered white negligees that they are going to change, replace or add to during the evening? They grope around onto the stage as if into some treacherous space, hesitatingly, yet resolutely. What are they looking for, what do they want? We know that under the picturesque costumes and masks patched together as if from randomly chosen elements of a sluggard's everydayness and cheap pomp, we can look for performers Veronika Švábová and the Finnish guest Pasi Mäkelä. We know that they both specialize in authorial physical theatre. We know that the Handa Gote research & development theatre group deals with – as a brochure accompanying the production tells us – human rituals (apart from other things) and their „dysfunction and degeneration“. We also know that our seeking for some sense of what is happening on stage will not be made easy.
In the improvised second-hand like corners on both sides of the stage we can recognize the typical Handa Gote “workrooms” that serve as a kind of home base for the performers, where they will find everything necessary for the creation of music and sounds, and also for changing of the costume. The annotation tells us that the production was inspired by Igor Stravinsky's music and the original choreography by Vaclav Nijinsky. However, we get to hear little of Stravinsky – only unrelated sequences from a record, interrupted by music from another gramophone, deformed by the performers' hands, voices and breathing. We also listen to similarly adapted chastushkas, the sounds of bells and other various sounds, which are hard to define and identify, all from a disordered pile of old records, probably of Soviet provenience. The performers also play the drums in African and other rhythms, a trumpet is employed as well as a children's miniature plastic piano.
The masked performers illicitly entered the stage as some creatures from another planet, sent here to carry out something in the name of an indefinite mission. Probably The Rite of Spring ritual. This ritual, which is evidently very important for them, is not carried out as a conceptual process, but rather as a scrum of chaotically exploding abstract actions with various specific props (e.g. a dustpan and a “ritually” falcate brush). The dance of the physically gifted and experienced performers is deliberately chaotic, stiff, clumsy, unpleasant, yet in a sense attractive and at times even very charming. The performers dance both together and solo. During the solo acts, they mutually support and complement each other with sound and instrumental alchemy. They do not dance together as a grown-up pair, but rather as two kids, at first uncertainly and then energetically thumping their secret dances on baffled feet. Even though they entered as allies united against an indefinite threat (from the normal world? or from that of adulthood?), they are supposed to demonstrate converse principles. The male principle is traditionally the original one: a woman rocks a huge wooden model of a phallus as a little baby that is then installed on an improvised little altar and covered piously with a white veil. They even perform a fencing duel, fighting one another (again clumsily and “comically”) with rubber phallic props, their shape reminding one of buds on a long stem, and their usage of police batons of the original silent grotesques slapstick comedy. The symbol of the procreant force, or maybe spring, is devaluated and becomes a comedy prop without losing its aggressive essence.
To make the seriousness of the rite even more problematic, the performers beautify themselves with attributes of the other gender. The woman dresses in loose long johns and hides her face in a white knitwear mask with an indicated black moustache. She now appears powerful, strong, truly manly. However, it is a neat parody of maleness and its folklore representation. Even the self-confidence is viewed with some irony and from a distance. The woman dances around a hastily raised maypole and suddenly a penis pops out of her open fly front (a virtuoso demonstration of self-centered male “negligence”). Exhausted from the dancing, (s)he then opens a bottle of beer with the penis – a bottle opener from a curiosity shop – and ceremoniously takes a swig, like a macho-man, with the slight sway of an experienced drunkard. Mäkelä looks much more insane and inappropriate, when he dresses in a long pink dress - maybe a wedding dress, but more likely a nightgown.
He wears a quite ugly retro bathing cap and dances (probably) the ritual dance. A downright comic figure in his looks as well as gestures. The “chosen” girl probably did not have enough time to master her little dance, from his/her severely closed eyelids glass eyes keep falling out. The “sacrificial dance” becomes a hastily skimped episode scene that lost its original fundamental importance. However, this futility makes it even more moving.
When these funny beings are done with their ritual tasks, they take the wooden phallus, and in a clownish gesture take it off stage (as if off a circus arena) as an exaggeratedly heavy load. All could end here, but we are not quite done yet. The performers choose pseudofolklore embroidered cloths, something like decorative pillowcases, from a pile of secondhand souvenirs. In front of a TV they both arrange these leftovers of contemplation on their faces and heads as impermeable masks. Until the final darkness they stay on stage as two aliens or some natives from the jungle, embellished by something totally inappropriate, yet in a sense decorative. It is as if they waited for some signals from space and in their thoughts kept whining: “home”.
■ Poor ritual. It was condemned to failure from the very beginning. However, even in this form it is indestructible. The actors' action resembles many things. Child's play, apart from else. The performers take toys from their side “workrooms” as children constructing their unstable worlds in a sandpit. Child's play opens the space for other “as ifs”: aliens, animals, the ill fortuned furious policemen from the beginning of the silent grotesque, comic strip monsters, clowns, fools, the souls of Soviet astronauts eternally wandering through space and through television waves.
Yes, I agree, this is too much. We could sure find some common denominator of beings associatively born from the observation of enacting a ritual. Even though they do not manage to carry out a truly successful ritual, which would reach the gods, there is still something primordial in these rumpled shamans, something indestructible that will never give up – some longing for creation, for festiveness that often cannot make sense of and wanders at its own self. Yes, they mess up more than they achieve, they are failed, shapeless, messy and who knows what else. They are forgotten by the gods, and yet as if some thin thread still connected them with its authentic “predecessors”, who “knew how to do it”.
Finally, we probably should once more look for the stated sources of inspiration. In 1913 the tendencies to return to the primordial sources of culture and theatre were relatively authentic, at the same time they also represented a profitable business article. And retrospectively again: Diaghilev was a businessman, trading in art, but in this subject field he appeared as an artist with talent for selling exceptional works of art as well as big personas. The whole scandalous premiere could at the same time be perceived as the invasion of avant-garde artists, a bit ahead of their time, and a matter of commercial interest. Handa Gote is a purely non-commercial group, and yet in this case it looks for inspiration in the “show business” of the past. Maybe it is even where Handa Gote artists look for the source of problems with the authenticity of the stage “ritual”, which they repeatedly explore in their productions.
Stravinsky became a successful composer and died at a blessed age in the United States. Nijinsky became a legend, he did not die young, but still as a very young artist he went mad and could not carry out his profession. His diary entries from that time are an example of the fragile boundaries between an ill mind and a big talent. Contemplation on this topic may smack of romantic snobbery, but in the diary it is stated so explicitly that it is quite stunning. Nijinsky calls himself God with such platitude and even humbleness that it is hard not to believe him: “I am a sensitive cripple. I dance the humpbacked and the straight”, “…my address is the kingdom of God. I don´t dwell at some street, I dwell in people.” I do not think that all big artists have to be insane. Hardworking talented normality is amazing and interesting. But the “chosen” ones bear some stigma of holiness that can be abused and turned into kitsch or it can become the subject of a beautiful legend. Simply put – a fabulous source of inspiration. Only someone had to suffer for it, to sacrifice himself. And we are still waiting for the spring.
The Rite of Spring, inspired by The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky and the ballet choreography of Vaclav Nijinsky, prepared by Švábová, Mäkelä, Procházka, Smolík, Dörner, Hybler, produced by jedefrau.org, Handa Gote research & development and Pasi Mäkelä, premiere May 27, 2014 at Alfred ve dvoře theatre
published in Svět a divadlo, issue 4, volume 2014
translated by Ester Žantovská