Dance Matters

August 2, 2009

A Surge of Serge

Diaghilev-inspired choreographers


On a May evening 100 years ago, Paris embraced the debut of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which went on to thrill viewers worldwide and create a kind of international ballet diaspora even after Diaghilev’s death in 1929 (see “The Ballets Russes Revolution,” Feb. 2009). The last of the post-Diaghilev companies disbanded in the 1960s. The company’s rich artistic legacy and composers have influenced many of today’s choreographers.


In May, Boston Ballet featured the world premiere of Jorma Elo’s production of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) as part of an eight-day, citywide centenary called “Ballets Russes 2009.” Though Elo admitted to struggling with the challenges of the ballet, he also found it “inspiring to think what all those artists came up with, when getting together and taking crazy risks, following their passion, encouraging and inspiring each other.” In the Ballets Russes’ hands, Elo says, “dance was a very living, moldable, wonderful, exciting thing.”


Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen chose Rite as well for his multimedia modern solo HUNT. Stravinsky’s score posed questions Saarinen wanted to address: Whose life is it? Who owns us? Who pulls our strings? Saarinen feels that The Rite of Spring is the cruelest and most powerful of Stravinsky’s works. “Its primitiveness is frightening yet fascinating. For me, The Rite of Spring is music of the unconscious,” he says. “It lures out humanity’s brutish, animal sides, just at the time when they are seeking to achieve a sacred state.”


Internal conflict also steers “Afternoon of the Faunes,” the final duet of Mark Dendy’s contemporary work Dream Analysis (1998). It offers, says Dendy, “the brilliant and mad sides of Nijinsky; how they split and came back together, even though in real life, they didn’t come together.” Dendy was fascinated by what he calls “the untold history” of the Ballets Russes, its confluence of gay artists and Nijinsky’s complex personal life. The period when Nijinsky was with the company, he feels, was the real beginning of modern dance. He says his version of Nijinsky’s faun, which he is reviving for New York City Center’s Fall for Dance, has more plasticity and pull than Nijinsky’s squared-off movement.


The rarely performed Petrouchka, meanwhile, intrigued Sally Rousse, co-founder of James Sewell Ballet. Inspired by her mentor Sviatoslav Toumine (who was a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Rousse created a version with eight company members, 14 other dancers, aerial work, and puppets.


“It’s such a bizarre piece of choreography—there’s not much there,” Rousse says of Michel Fokine’s masterpiece, known for its realistic treatment of crowd scenes. “I wanted to retell the story because I love puppetry.” Rousse put the Charlatan on stilts and gave the Ballerina pointe and aerial work. “When I think of life-size puppets, I think of aerial work: You’re controlled by strings, like being controlled by a charlatan.” This new version follows the libretto, she says, “but I added just a little dimestore psychology.”  


The lure of the Ballet Russes lies in its remarkable story. “Everybody wants what they had,” Rousse says. “It was a hotbed of creativity, with composers and choreographers and artists. A lot of it was bad, but a lot of it was amazing, too. We’ll never have anything like that again. —Heather Wisner



A Million Gigs

Benjamin Millepied’s busy schedule


Many in the dance world first took note of Benjamin Millepied when he sailed with serene buoyancy and amiable aplomb through Jerome Robbins’ 2 & 3 Part Inventions as a 16-year-old in the School of American Ballet Workshop. That occasion, which forged a friendly association between the choreographer and young dancer, is now nearly half a lifetime ago for the enterprising and multifaceted Millepied. A virtuoso principal dancer with New York City Ballet, he is also one of the busiest ballet choreographers around, with a line-up of commissions that he carefully balances with NYCB’s rehearsals and performances.


His schedule this autumn requires a scorecard to keep straight, as he shows no signs of easing up after an 18-month period that saw him create major works for American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opéra Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and NYCB. In May, when performances had just begun for NYCB’s spring season, he guided his cast of 20 through a stage rehearsal of Quasi Una Fantasia, titled after its Henryk Górecki score, 10 days before its premiere. Surging, intersecting contingents devoured space with athletic verve, as Millepied encouraged them with sound effects (“whum” seemed to be his favorite). “This has to be rhythmically impeccable,” he warned the dancers.


Though Double Aria (a duet he made on his own group) entered NYCB’s repertory in 2005, the chance to create his first work on his fellow dancers was clearly significant for Millepied. “This is definitely the most meaningful opportunity I’ve ever had, because City Ballet is the place I chose to dance,” he says. “It’s the most Balanchinean thing I’ve ever done. The score is my guide; it drove me in all the directions that I’ve taken.”


The French native spent his first five years in Senegal before his family returned to Bordeaux. African and modern dance (and making up his own dances at his mother’s dance school) preceded his serious commitment to ballet. As a 13-year-old student at the Conservatoire Nationale in Lyon, he took daily Cunningham classes. “I had this really serious modern training that I loved. I think it’s still an influence on my work.”

His choreography is bracingly contemporary yet more relaxed and expansive, less hard-hitting and confrontational than much contemporary work. His legacy from Robbins includes a gift for nuanced drama; his ballets evoke subtle connections between dancers.


This month, Millepied is running a dance project on Martha’s Vineyard. He will create a new ballet to Bach for a Cannes premiere during a November tour of his Danses Concertantes, the ensemble he formed in 2002 to present his own and others’ works. The 2009 incarnation includes several ABT dancers and others he has discovered in European companies.


Before heading to France, he has another ABT premiere in October, to chamber scores by David Lang. Millepied is excited by contemporary composers, having worked with Philip Glass and Nico Muhly.


How does this emerging choreographer view his rich heritage from NYCB? “I’ve come to the point where I’ve assimilated what I’ve seen and what I’ve danced with the company,” Millepied says. “Not long ago, I started really analyzing the Balanchine and Robbins works. I knew I loved dancing the rep at City Ballet—but as for how it influenced my work as a choreographer, it’s only in the recent past that I began to look at it differently. So we’ll see what happens.” —Susan Reiter