‘Rite of Spring’ revival at UNC to feature new costumes
The Martha Graham Dance Company had planned to use Halston’s original costumes for a revival of Graham’s 1984 “Rite of Spring.” This work is included in the company’s Friday and Saturday programs at UNC’s Memorial Auditorium. Superstorm Sandy changed that plan.
“There was a rush of water that ripped doors off walls,” company artist director Janet Eilber said of that storm’s devastating effect on the company’s New York headquarters.
About four months before the storm hit, the company had moved into Merce Cunningham Company’s former headquarters a block from the Hudson River. So, the Sandy-propelled surge tide had flooded the basement where all the company’s costumes and sets were stored, Eilber said in a telephone interview. Ten days passed before the water could be pumped out and that’s when they found soaked costumes, including vintage wear, she added.
They managed to salvage some costumes by sending them to a laundry. A trunk full of costumes worn by Graham has been sent to be restored, Eilber said. Other costumes were beyond repair, such as Halston’s black and white loincloths and sarong-style skirts designed for Graham’s “Rite of Spring.” What audiences will see this weekend are new costumes inspired by Halston’s originals, she added.
The company needs to raise $3 million to replace or restore damaged sets and costumes. Stars from the dance world performed at a Feb. 25 benefit with North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble alumna Michelle Dorrance kicking off the show, Eilber said.
To reconstruct Graham’s “Rite of Spring,” not performed since 1993, the company used film footage of the original work as well as first-hand knowledge shared by the company’s rehearsal director Denise Vale and Kenneth Topping, who had danced in the original cast, Eilber said.
Graham’s “Rite” features 17 dancers and includes a Shaman and The Chosen One, the maiden sacrificed for Earth’s spring renewal. In the Graham Company’s current production, Blakeley White-McGuire and Xiachuan Xie share the role of The Chosen One (on alternate nights at UNC).
“They’re both phenomenal dancers and very different in this lead role. There’s a certain fragility to her – a natural projection of the innocence,” Eilber said of Xiachuan. “Blakeley is a dynamic actress. She’s a tigress. She’s not just the victim in this role.”
White-McGuire explained her interpretation: “She’s an active participant in the ritual. The fear is there but also the choice. It’s the empowerment of the individual,” the dancer said in a telephone interview.
This “Rite” also represents the culmination of White-McGuire’s years of study in Graham’s technique, which builds physical strength, mental concentration and tenacity, the dancer added. “The Graham technique is incredibly athletic. The physical and emotional are intertwined. It’s an endurance piece for the company,” she said. White-McGuire’s solo comes after 15 minutes of hard dancing. While she doesn’t have the 123 jumps The Chosen One executed in the original “Rite,” White-McGuire performs some very energetic moves. “I haven’t counted, but there may be 123 contractions and releases,” she said.
When creating her “Rite” at age 90, Graham no doubt drew on her own experience of performing The Chosen One in a 1930 version choreographed by Leonide Massine with the set designer from the original 1913 “Rite.” Graham’s relationship with Massine proved contentious, Eilber said. At one point, Graham told him, “ ‘Get me out of these damned boots.’ She danced her role barefoot,” Eilber added.
It would be 53 years until Graham would create her own “Rite.”
“It really is an incredible work,” Eilber said. The work reflects Graham’s revolutionary contribution to modern dance. “She took body language and theatricalized it,” Eilber added.
Both Stravinsky’s and Graham’s works evoke the primal. “Graham’s gutsy, percussive, elemental movement style was a great match for Stravinsky’s music,” she noted. “They’re both geniuses.”
In her Feb. 29, 1984, review of the premiere of Graham’s “Rite” at Lincoln Center, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff had high praise. “It is a ‘Rite’ that is totally elemental, as primal in expression of basic emotion as any tribal ceremony, as hauntingly staged in its deliberate bleakness as it is rich in implication,” the critic writes.
Graham sets her “Rite” in a desert landscape evocative of the American Southwest with rituals suggestive of Native American inspiration, Kisselgoff notes.
In Graham’s version, instead of dancing herself to death, The Chosen One succumbs from sheer terror, “the life ebbing out of her in a spasmodic solo,” the critic writes.
“She is quite simply an artist of the greatest depth and she stirs us so strongly that we cannot merely walk out of the theater as if we had witnessed just another dance performance,” Kisselgoff writes.
The audience must have agreed, for they gave Graham’s work a standing ovation at the premiere.
The Martha Graham Dance Company’s Myth & Transformation programs at UNC’s Memorial Auditorium Friday and Saturday offer classic Graham as well as a world premiere. Wrapping up Carolina Performing Arts’ year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the original 1913 “The Rite of Spring,” the company’s two appearances feature Graham’s 1984 “The Rite of Spring.” Both programs also include the Carolina Performing Arts-commissioned, world premiere, “Rust” by Nacho Duato, performed by New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan. Graham’s “Moon,” a duet from her 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” performed by Whelan and Lloyd Knight, also appears on both nights.
The Friday program also includes Graham’s 1947 “Errand Into the Maze” and her 1948 “Diversion of Angels.” The Saturday program also features Graham’s 1944 “Appalachian Spring.”
Programs start at 8 p.m.
For tickets, call 919-843-3333 or visit www.carolinaperformingarts.org.