Doug Fullington has been doing an excellent job with these audience education programs, and this look at Sacre is another example. The dance community had some great lectures and performances surrounding the 100th anniversary of the score and the Nijinsky choreography – this was a nice return to that.
PNB has performed a couple of productions set to the score – Russell and Stowell brought in the Glen Tetley choreography in 2005 (they had already performed his Voluntaries and Alice). As I remember it, the work is classic Tetley, combining the emotional/expressive components of Graham-based modern dance in the upper body with a more hybridized lower body. He uses the facility of ballet technique, but the vocabulary is more grounded and percussive. The main thread of the work is similar to the tribal narrative that many people use with Sacre – the sacrificial character is danced by a man rather than a woman, but otherwise it follows along with the theatrical history of the work.
Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness takes a difference approach to the storytelling aspects – it’s a solo work, and has been performed by both men and women. But the biggest difference is the question of sacrifice. Fenley made a grueling test for herself, and other dancers, but she does not lead her character to death at the end. Instead of ‘dying,’ the performer steps into a pool of light on the last notes of the work. The final attitude seems to vary with the dancer – I’ve seen it look like victory, like defiance, like exhaustion and like exaltation, and from what the various performers have said, any and all of those reactions are legitimate.
The movement vocabulary is idiosyncratic – it’s modern dance, but accessible to a ballet trained performer. Many of the “steps” have specific names that Fenley or one of the five other dancers who have performed it before have coined (“the scorpion,” “the organic farming section,” “the shield”), but they’re also able to be broken down into fairly recognizable vocabulary.
For the seminar, Fullington showed an extended interview with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer from a 2009 documentary (Stravinsky and the Ballet Russe) where they discuss their reconstruction of the work. It’s a more recent interview than the one from the Dance in America Joffrey Ballet program about their initial working experience – they’re much more confident in their discussion and explanations. Archer goes into detail about the narrative arc of the work – it’s an interesting contrast to the Fenley work, which does not follow the original text.
After the film, Peter Boal came in, along with Jonathan Porretta and James Moore, to talk about their experiences with the Fenley version. Boal spoke about learning the work from her initially – he said they were “strenuous circumstances” (Fenley had injured herself in performance and it wasn’t clear if she would return to dancing the work) According to them all, you learn the choreography in long, long phrases, that don’t link up with the score in a conventional one-to-one fashion very often. She usually will dance alongside someone, in a kind of tandem relationship. Jonathan Porretta was asked if it took long for muscle memory to kick in, but he said it wasn’t as essential a tool with this solo as it is with other work, and that the work was really a challenge to remember. He had some trouble thinking of it in sections – he had to start from the beginning most times. When asked about the changing meter in the score, Peter Boal reiterated that the choreography wasn’t always tied specifically to musical structures so much as a series of landmarks – “you want to be here at a certain time.” There are a few places that feel like quotations from the Nijinsky version, but not quite.
Matthew Renko and Angelica Generosa are both learning the work (and are going to get a chance to perform). They’re at the place where it’s just about getting through it all – with luck they’ll be able to come back to the work in the future and go further with it.
There really aren’t that many extended solo works in the ballet repertory – this is a fairly unusual opportunity for these dancers. They refer to themselves as members of a club – they say it lightheartedly, but I get the sense they really do think of this as an exclusive experience.
Watching some clips of older performances it reminds me a bit of Graham’s Errand Into the Maze, which has some amazing extended solo work. Both versions are full of images of exploring and traveling, and both appear to be a kind of endurance test that the soloist must work through, and that they emerge from in the end having vanquished demons. In the Graham, that demon has corporeal form, but in Fenley’s work it is all in the mind of the dancer, and it’s their job to show it to us. It’s an incredible challenge.