The Rite of Spring

Ballet Austin's triple bill melded classicism, romance, and biology to striking effect

American beauty: Elise Pekarek in 'Requiem for a Rose'
American beauty: Elise Pekarek in 'Requiem for a Rose' (Courtesy of Tony Spielberg)

The Rite of Spring

Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Feb. 15

Balanchine's 1956 "Allegro Brillante," which opened Ballet Austin's Rite of Spring triple bill, has been in the company's repertoire since 1986. Exemplary of how midcentury Balanchine saw classical technique and style as a vehicle for pure expression, it quotes classical steps and shapes, pushing them together, making them faster, and linking them with quick changes of direction, pushing classicism to the brink so that, ideally, more expression rises to the surface. Staged here by Leslie Peck, "Allegro" often had the requisite exactness and joy, but I can't say that the lead couple, Jaime Lynn Witts and Paul Michael Bloodgood, transcended the steps. Despite her beauty and strength, Witts looked winded, and Bloodgood's Achilles' heel, or should I say his Achilles' Achilles – tendons too inflexible for good jumps – persisted despite his regal stature. Nevertheless, the thrilling diagonal in which they were whipped and thrown at the mercy of the piano – Kiyoshi Tamagawa, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 3 as guest of the Austin Symphony, conducted by Peter Bay – persists in my mind.

If only the orchestra had also played the Schubert for "Requiem for a Rose"! The adagio from String Quintet in C was a recording, but the dancers did their best to make us forget it in the 2009 work by Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. In identical crimson skirts, the five women and seven men were vulnerable but unapologetic. In this tender, close read of the music, grace notes did not go unnoticed, especially by Rebecca Johnson. Dancing with Christopher Swaim, she used her long limbs to gently luxuriate in the music. The Schubert section was framed by starkly lit soloist Elise Pekarek, first whipping her hair and thrusting her limbs to a throbbing heartbeat, and afterward leading the dancers offstage to the same, all with her mouth obscured by a red rose. The heart, the piece told us, is animal; the romance it leads us into and, inevitably, out of is mere biology.

While "Requiem" allows respite from biology, The Rite of Spring does not. In Stephen Mills' ballet to Stravinsky's score – as in Nijinsky's 1913 original – animal instincts and herd mentalities thrive. The score's power to disturb is evident even in the introduction (thank goodness Bay's orchestra was back), when the bassoon's wandering notes call to mind amoebas, mutations, and fish crawling out of the mud. Bare-rooted trees hovered over the stage, signifying the tribe as a subworld. In ritual and as if determined by earthly, or sub-earthly, forces, the ensemble circled its prey in stamps and stag-leaps. Cast partly for her stamina, Michelle Thompson, the sacrificial maiden in the cast I saw (Beth Terwilleger alternated in the role), demonstrated pacing, breath control, and power. As her high leaps despaired into donkey kicks, I could almost hear the hooves clicking. I know I heard her last gasp, purposefully audible, as the ensemble threw her to the wind.

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The Rite of Spring, Austin dance, Ballet Austin, Stephen Mills, Jaime Lynn Witts, Paul Michael Bloodgood, Rebecca Johnson, Christopher Swaim, Elise Pekarek, Kiyoshi Tamagawa, Austin Symphony Orchestra, Peter Bay

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