Well, sometimes even the jaded low expectations of your at times not-so-humble critic are upended and he is left wondering how he ever could have doubted in the first place. When I initially got this DVD of a 2003 "reworking" of Igor Stravinsky's monumental ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, I asked myself how anyone could have messed with the original conception, famously choreographed by Nijinsky under the overall direction of Diaghilev (putting aside for a moment the fact that Nijinsky's choreography was never notated to any great degree, leaving historians to ponder what that production might have really looked like). The 1913 premiere of the work notoriously ended with the audience rioting (and not in a good way), even as Nijinsky stood in the wings screaming out beats to the wildly fluctuating time signatures and tempi as his dancers sought to keep up with the primal music. My, how times have changed. Large swaths of Stravinsky's score sound positively elegantly melodic to modern ears, and the pounding primitive polyrhythms, along with such devices as Stravinsky's famous "seven note chord," simply sound like another World Music extravaganza to ears that have, in the intervening decades since Stravinsky broke virtually every compositional rule in crafting this piece, grown accustomed to dissonance and polytonalities all set to layered beats that, to slightly paraphrase American Bandstand, may not be all that easy to dance to and yet are highly propulsive.
German choreographer and ballet director Uwe Scholz, who passed away at a relatively young age shortly after these two (yes, two, more about which later) versions of Le Sacre were filmed, has not only radically reimagined the piece (twice), he manages to virtually paint the score with the human body (Scholz not only choreographed, but also designed the sets, costumes and lighting for these versions). Scholz, a wunderkind if ever there were one, came to the Leipzig Ballet after a triumphant if turbulent tenure in Zurich (before which he studied in both the Balanchine and Cranko schools), and he quickly made the German burg a dance center of international importance. Scholz' unique and visceral genius is fully on display throughout both versions of Le Sacre presented here, the first the renowned two piano-four hand version, and the second the perhaps better known full orchestral version.
Scholz' brilliance and singular theatricality are immediately on display in the first, two piano rendition of Le Sacre, choreographed for solo male dancer (the impressive Giovanni di Palma), who plays out a series of scenarios against a large backdrop on which a succession of at times patently strange film clips plays. Di Palma emerges from a grand piano at the start of this startling ballet, as if Scholz was directly telling the audience that the music and dancer were going to become one in this version. This is an obviously autobiographical version, with what appear to be clips of some of Scholz' previous productions, as well as some backstage footage, not to mention a young boy learning dance steps, all on the upstage screen, while di Palma does amazingly athletic work live downstage.
The second, full orchestral version of Le Sacre is more redolent of the original conception, which was of a pagan ritual where a young woman danced herself to death as village elders watched, in order to placate and make beneficent the spring fertility gods. In this completely polar opposite version of the two piano rendition, Scholz manages a huge palette of 56 (!) dancers, led by Kiyoko Kimura. While this version retains some classical moves and tableaux, its modern sensibility is made apparent right off the bat (or baton, as it were) with the gargantuan troupe lying down and making various "wave" like motions with arm and hand movements, all set within a striking red-orange lighting motif. This version treads the waters somewhat between classical ballet and more modern, expressive, neo-classical motifs, with more angular and abstract body movements than one might expect from the relatively more restrained Balanchine, for example.
If there's anything to complain about in these amazing revisionings, it's the somewhat lackluster orchestral work of Leipzig's Gewandhausorchester under the direction of Henrik Schaefer. This is obviously not an easy score to play (and, believe me, I've played the two-piano version and have the bleeding fingers to prove it), and the orchestra does overall acceptable work, but there are some badly missed cues (a lot of them in the timpani), as well as a curiously lethargic feel in some of the more rhythmic sections of this massive score. I will cut the group a little slack in that Scholz may have specifically asked for slower tempi to accommodate his dance moves, but I really wondered what the piece would have sounded like with a mercurial conductor like Bernstein or Boulez leading the group. Another minimal concern is Kimura's acting vocalizations in some moments, notably her distracting hysterical laughing in her death throes at the end of the piece. I personally would have much preferred a pantomimed performance, which would have been perfectly clear and would not have pulled attention away from Stravinsky's amazing music. But these are very small qualms in the grand scheme of things.
Luckily most if not all of Scholz' visionary work with the Leipzig Ballet has been preserved on film. This remarkable concert proves that a warhorse, even one as revolutionary as Le Sacre, can be revisited and reimagined successfully if there's sufficient visionary genius in the creative mind behind the production.
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