Reconstructing the Rite

By Sheri Candler

In the early 1970′s a young, British graduate student named Millicent Hodson was working on a thesis project about Nijinsky, particularly Le Sacre du Printemps, at the University of California Berkeley. As previously stated, the Joffrey company had a summer residency at the college and this is where Robert Joffrey met Hodson.

Earlier in Joffrey’s life, he had traveled to London to work with Marie Rambert, the grand dame of British ballet and personal assistant to Nijinsky who had taken notes while he choreographed Le Sacre. It is likely that she was a great influence on Joffrey’s love for and knowledge of Nijinsky. He also had a lifelong interest in Diaghilev and how he developed the Ballets Russes into a renowned company. When the young graduate student Hodson wrote to him about trying to reconstruct one of the greatest, and lost, masterpieces of twentieth century dance first performed by Ballets Russes, it is hardly surprising that he would follow up. “She was intrigued by Rite of Spring and she wrote to him about it. It was to his credit that he didn’t view her as some little grad student and toss it out. He paid attention and stayed in touch with her over many many years, and finally saw all her research and thought they might have enough to go on to reconstruct this ballet,” said Carole Valleskey, who was one of the female dancers selected to dance the role of The Chosen One in the Joffrey/Hodson reconstruction.

According to Anawalt’s book, Hodson recalled ”I told him I had started this documentary project collecting materials on Le Sacre du Printemps and how I dreamed to see it on stage and that I was going to try to find all the missing pieces. He said ‘Well, that’s a very good idea.’” By 1980, she had dug up a lot of material such as photos, sketches, notes and conducted interviews with anyone who was around during Nijinsky’s choreographic process, including Rambert. She published her results in Dance Magazine that June and started fielding calls from many prominent dance companies who were interested in performing the work, but 2 years later she chose Robert Joffrey’s company to bring Sacre to the stage.

Not until 1987 did the Joffrey company receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts amounting to $243,400 in order to present the reconstruction, as well as 3 performance seasons in New York and Los Angeles. Reconstructing this piece solidified the company as the preeminent repository of Diaghilev era pieces. The company set to work in June at the University of Iowa on the arduous task of putting together the ballet, step by step, gesture by gesture.

The Chosen One surrounded by The Maidens

“It was a fascinating process and for me it was one of the most rewarding things I did as a dancer because it was an intellectual process as well. Beatriz Rodriguez and I were the Chosen One and so we worked very closely with Millicent when she was constructing this. She sometimes only had notes on what something looked like and she would say ‘Here’s some written material, here’s the sketch, here’s the music, what can we do?’

Bea and I would help in that process because we would say it could be something like this, or it could be something like this, and she would make a decision. She often would go to Bob Joffrey and say ‘I’ve got solid material at point A and solid material at point C, I’m missing material in between.’ He would say bridge it in a way that makes the most sense and makes the most sense on the dancer’s body. That is part of the process that we would be doing.

The whole company participated in this, but as the Chosen One is really the only solo, that process was really more participatory on Bea and me with Millicent and the company pianist at the time, Stanley Babin. The Stravinsky music is incredibly difficult and dancers count differently than musicians and Stanley helped guide us through that score. It was just great fun to me because fun is working hard on a project that everyone has the same goal in mind in creating something,” said Valleskey.

notes from Carole Valleskey on the dancers beats to the difficult music

“We started rehearsing with a very difficult scene, at the end of the ballet when the Chosen One is dancing and all of the men are moving in a circle around her. Stravinsky’s music is definitely not regular, there are very unpredictable measures, certainly not straight 8s like we are used to. Millicent wanted us to dance to the music literally and the choreography seemed to dictate that we do the sequence of steps based on exactly what the music was doing. Basically, we had to memorize the score which was very difficult. We developed these certain ways of remembering it. We would say we’ll do a one, then a one two and then a one three, we developed a number system that would tell us what to do.  Some had cheat sheets that they would hold in their hand while we were learning it to remember what we were supposed to do,” said Roger Plaut who danced as one of the Young Men.

In addition to the irregular music, the choreography was also the antithesis of classical ballet training. “If you look at it from a dancers point of view, it isn’t what we were trained to do as dancers which is turn out and create beautiful lines. Sacre is about turning in and being slouched over and there is really no line created. I remember getting sore in my arms because there is a place where we have to fall forward and land on our hands, the arms catch you from hitting your face on the floor. We were very sore the first few weeks of doing that over and over again. It was a weird way of moving for us and we just had to remember that this was a historic piece, recreating a lost piece that hadn’t been seen for many, many years and knowing how important it was,” said Kim Sagami, who danced one of The Women.

“We hadn’t even seen the costumes yet. The idea of putting on those costumes, wigs and makeup, bearskins and braids and all of that was very different from what we knew. So if it was different in the 1980s, imagine what it was in 1913,” said Cameron Basden who danced as one of the Young Maidens. Hodson’s husband, the art historian Kenneth Archer, helped to recreate Roerich’s costumes and scenic designs.

There were worries on the part of the company that Hodson’s work would not be accepted by the dance world since there were holes in her research. Little did the company know that they would not only be figuratively shaking the world with their premiere, but also literally!

to be continued>>





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