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Ib Andersen’s Rite of Spring premieres at the Desert Botanical Garden

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Below is a review of Ib Andersen's Rite of Spring, written by Carol Schilling. Rite of Spring runs through Saturday, June 3, 2023 at the DBG.


Ib Andersen’s 21st century choreography to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring opened last night at the Desert Botanical Garden, and if there was ever a broad statement about the history of man and this Earth to be seen on the dance stage, this is it. If you want comfort, this is not it. If you want to think deeply, this performance will give you lots to reflect upon.

It was, in a few words, rivetingly beautiful, apocalyptic, deeply uncomfortable, but at the end faintly hopeful.

The entire company is on stage much of the time but the stand-out star of the performance is the backdrop created for this presentation. Three flat mountains stand at the back edge of the stage, echoing the Papago Buttes which lie across Galvin Parkway from the Garden. The stage mountains capture the electronic graphics that from the first one of these ballets-in-the-garden eleven years ago have played to great effect off the Papago Buttes and the iconic desert trees in the middle distance.

In this presentation, however, the stage mountains trap the moving and changing light display and hold it at stage’s edge. In the first half of the performance, “Now,” they reflect images reminiscent of ancient temples, paragraphs of written words, faces captured in a miasma of sliding color and shapes, exploding bits that spread from left to right over the stage.

In the second half, “Then,” the stage mountains display an ashen world, reduced to empty space of undulating sand interspersed with the echoes of—can it be?—saguaros, followed by stark images of destroyed concrete buildings, broken and awry. The paired dancing of Jillian Barrell and Helio Lima in exquisite, matching steps through a colorless emptiness is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Even the names of the two acts—"Now”and “Then”—reflect Andersen’s clever mind: “Then” does not mean, as one would first assume, to past times but instead to the future.

Let’s talk about the dancers of Ballet Arizona. Frankly speaking, there are no superstars, but they are pretty good and Andersen’s choreography makes them better than they are. In this case, as did the great Balanchine in his early days in New York, Andersen does not feature individual performances, but knits together the entire company on stage for most of the performance, dancing in small groups and large groups—occasionally divided into male and female (almost double the men) sections. They dance together impeccably in unison, mastering complicated maneuvers as one. Pairs of dancers run up the ramps onto the stage or leave quietly, remaking the evolving dancer combinations into endless combinations of form and shape, intricate and complicated, piling so quickly one after another that it is hard for a mind to take it in.

Don’t look for the spectacle of 54 pirouettes in a row that brings audiences to their feet, but instead admire the bulky handling of ballerinas who are picked up, carried around the stage, even slowly twirled like a windmill. There is, mercifully, very little rolling around on the stage although there is a plethora of extraordinary body movement, contortion, and dancing on those tippy toes.

Themes you don’t generally expect in ballet appear in Andersen’s Rite of Spring. One riveting sequence features what one can only interpret as the have-nots of our human society crawling and creeping in a dim-lit back row like serviles struggling for air and life while the gleaming have-lots frolic tall and upright in front, basking in visibility and self-comfort.

In 1913 when The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris with choreography by the famous Nijinsky, it caused a riot. That choreography was performed only eight times, but the ballet and the music changed the world. The music, harsh and dissonant, unmelodic and at times frightening, has much to say. Ib Andersen said he was initially afraid to tackle such music—its size and power and scope and complexity—until he dreamed it last summer. Moving it outdoors into the Sonoran Desert seems to me the only place big enough to encompass the music, and at the same time comforting enough to endure the message.

Although Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring refers to a pagan annual ritual involving the sacrifice of a beautiful young woman to persuade the gods to bring the world back into bloom, Andersen’s Rite of Spring refers to our self-destructive world of humanity which today faces factional hatreds played out in politics, shootings, wars, die-off of animal species, global warming, artificial intelligence blurring the lines of what is real and what is unreal. At the end of the production, Andersen’s magic allows strange, almost comical leaves to pop out of the scenery and grow into giant plants, life trying to return to a destroyed world.

Let us speak about the costumes which were designed by Andersen with fabric that he himself painted. In “Now” the dancers all wear tighty shinies--paired on the women with muted and multicolored tops--outfits which from the bleacher rows glisten while showing off the glorious muscled tone of the dancer bodies. In “Then” all the dancers wear a uniform of body suits in a color that stage lighting changes from aqua to sage and reminds you of what the astronauts wear when floating around in their spaceships.

Now, big picture: Did we talk about genius? Who would tackle such a powerful theme other than a man in his prime of creation, solid in his mastery of all things ballet and confident enough to design the costumes and choreography and oversee the sets and lighting designs for a piece of music 110 years old? Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was not created for comfort or pleasure but it speaks today for reality, for contemporary commentary, for the apocalyptic horrors of the world present.

In a pre-premiere talk, Andersen said in his typical understated way that his Rite of Spring is complicated. He invited the audience to come back to see it a “second time, a third time, a fourth time.” There are layers of meaning to discover in this uncomfortable piece that is a deep conversation with the mind of Ib Andersen. Like Nijinsky’s ballet a century ago, this may be seen only during its run at the Desert Botanical Garden. Don’t miss it. You may have bad dreams, but you’ll remember it forever.

                                                                                                                --Carol Schilling

Carol and Randy Schilling have been among Ballet Arizona’s foremost supporters over the years, and they were the visionaries who were most responsible for bringing ballet to the DBG eleven years ago. Without their vision, determination, and support, ballet in the desert would never have gotten off the ground. So Carol is not just a reviewer; she has been integral to this whole undertaking.

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