Premiering The Rite and shaking the world

By Sheri Candler

The summer of 1987 was a busy time for the company as they were not only reconstructing one of the most prolific and lost pieces of choreography in the 20th century, but also preparing for the first ever Nutcracker performed by the company. Robert Joffrey had long dreamed of creating his own take on the Christmas classic and he enlisted the help of George Verdak for the staging, ballet master Scott Barnard for rehearsals and Gerald Arpino for a reimagining of the Snowflakes and the Flower Waltz. He was also gravely ill and rarely attended rehearsals.

“The sad thing is he [Robert Joffrey] knew or he suspected he might die.  So what does he do, he gets the Rite of Spring. He’s paying his tribute to his childhood and saying ‘I made a promise to myself that I would have a ballet company that would include this beautiful era of ballet.  I made a promise to myself that I would do a snowflake ballet.’ He loved Christmas so he does the Nutcracker. I think he did hasten to do those two works that were really the summation in many ways, and they’re very old fashioned in many ways.  Although he loved and embraced pop culture, this was his homage to what ballet is,” said Sasha Anawalt in an interview for the film.

Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps was finally reintroduced to the world on September 30, 1987 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. A standing ovation was given with many critics remarking that the ballet had exceeded the great expectations placed upon it. Though ill, Robert Joffrey had managed to fly across the country to stand proudly with his company along with The Chosen One, Beatriz Rodriguez, and Hodson and Archer, all receiving thrown bouquets. Later that night, a 6.1 earthquake struck the city. “It was kind of wild and mystical that this Rite of Spring, which caused such havoc in its premier in Paris 70 years before, was having an earthquake the night it opened in Los Angeles.  And it just seemed so appropriate,” remembered Joffrey photographer Herbert Migdoll. “We kind of felt like we weren’t just making history, but also shaking the world!,” remarked dancer Cameron Basden.

A recording of the Joffrey Ballet performing Le Sacre du Printemps can be found below (this is not the Los Angeles premiere)

“It was such an exhilarating experience to perform and the experience of being in this world on stage. It was hard to rehearse, picking it apart in order to do it well could be very tedious and emotionally as well as physically draining, but performing it was thrilling. The audience reaction was magic. We had gone to a place collectively and we knew that we were making history and changing the face of dance.  Without even saying it, we all understood that something important was taking place,” remembered Basden.

“It was a very emotional experience, but you also have to remember it was a nervy one. While it certainly wasn’t as controversial as when it first played in 1913, our reconstruction of it was controversial nonetheless because it had been reconstructed from sketchy notes in places, so from what we understand it was perhaps only 75% accurate. There was a lot of back and forth about how accurate we were. But from Paris, to Hamburg to Spain to Hong Kong, they all went crazy for it. It got the job done whether it was 100% or 98% or 75% accurate,” remarked Joffrey dancer Adam Sklute, who now is Artistic Director of Utah’s Ballet West.

The Joffrey Ballet went on to tour the piece around the world including Paris. “We had been invited to show the reconstruction in Paris at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees which had been shut down for refurbishment to bring it back to the 1913 condition.   So we were going to be reopening the theater back to its original glory with the piece that had caused the sensation. When we took our places on the stage, it felt like there were already impressions on the floor by the original Nijinsky dancers.  It was so extraordinary and the Paris audience just ate it up! I wish that Bob Joffrey could have seen it in that setting, he would have just loved it,” remembered Valleskey.

Unfortunately, Robert Joffrey did not live to see this performance. He succumbed to AIDS related causes in March  1988. “By December of that same year [1987], he had gone downhill a lot.  He came to take his bow for the opening of Nutcracker at City Center [New York] and he did not look like himself anymore.  He was very pallid and sick, not well.  The dancers were viscerally upset by seeing him in such a debilitated state.  But he wanted to take a bow with his new Nutcracker, and he did.  And then after that, it was a month or two that he passed,” said Migdoll.

As many as 130 different versions of Rite of Spring have been reimagined and performed around the world, some from such luminaries of the dance world like Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, and Maurice Bejart. The music is often performed on its own as well and was used in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia inspiring many of today’s great composers and conductors to a career in music.

In 2013, The Joffrey Ballet will once again perform the piece in many locations across the United States with tickets available now.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>