I managed to get a ticket to the New Year’s Eve performance at Paris Opera’s Palais Garnier of a modern triple-bill, the piece of most interest to me being Le Sacre du Printemps. Over the phone (at 35 centimes a minute), I was told that the house was completely sold out, but I figured it was worth a try to visit the box office the night of the performance to check for cancellations. There I was told that there were no cancellations but that for 35 euros I could buy a ticket for a seat in which, if I sat, my view of the stage would be completely obscured but if I stood up, I could see perfectly, and since there was no one behind me, I could do that (equivalent seats at Covent Garden go for a quarter of the price but wotevs). I was shown to my seat as the lights went down, the fourth seat in a loge in the upper balcony with a three-quarters view of the stage. My chair had a tote bag in it, and when none of the three other patrons cramped together offered to move it, I picked it up to put it on the floor, at which point the woman in front turned around, grabbed and replaced the bag, then wagged her finger at me. In the darkness I pointed to my ticket and back to the chair, and she responded again with her finger. When I whispered, “This is my seat; I have a ticket for this seat—please move your bag!!” (I didn’t even bother trying to speak French at this point), the man next to her shout-whispered,
“Bee Kwaiaytte!! SHOEUT OEUP!!”
“This is MY SEAT; I HAVE A TICKET”
“SHOEUT OEUP RRAIT NAWW!!”
Apollo is a quieter work for Stravinsky, composed entirely for strings, and so I stomped off in my boots across the noisy wooden floors with the rest of the gallery shoeusheeng me over its gentle opening chords and let the heavy brass door clank shut behind me. After much cajoling, the usher agreed to help me defend my place, but only if I agreed to be verree, verree kwaiaytte. She then realized that she had shown me to the wrong seat (merde alors!) , and that my ticket was in fact for a seat at the far end of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, acutely angled to the stage. I couldn’t see sitting or standing, so I did what most of the people in the ‘gods’ did; I moved over to stand as close to the wall separating the side loges from the central loges as I could. Standing there I could see a little more than half the stage, which I figured was better than being kicked out of the Palais Garnier. I didn’t understand all the commotion over my making noise, however. The upper balconies were pretty noisy. People were talking, walking in and out, burping babies, necking, and openly videotaping the performance. I’ve never had a very strict attitude about audience decorum, except with regard to crinkling candy wrappers and open drunkenness, so I didn’t mind the Freihaus atmosphere of the place, although I did mind that it smelled like a toilet. My visit to the Grand Ballroom during intermission, however, confirmed that the stench pervaded even the high-ticket areas. I feel it’s worth noting that though the Paris Opera might follow dubious standards in bathroom hygiene, they do serve champagne, finger-sandwiches, and petits-fours at intermission, something I have yet to enjoy at Lincoln Center.
I want to talk about Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du Printemps. I was not familiar with this version before that night. It’s a striking work, which gets certain themes across brilliantly—fear, desperation, the horrific injustices human beings inflict on one another in times of misery. But it doesn’t quite match the big, bad original in several, I think, major ways. This is the opening of Nijinsky’s version, originally created for the Ballets Russes:
Nijinsky’s work first tells the story very clearly. At the first lonely, lovely, cadence from the bassoon, the lights rise on people huddled in clusters on the ground. Slowly they arise and stretch, as if out of hibernation. It is the onset of Spring, and the people begin to beat the earth and reach out to the sky, a prayer for abundance. Rival tribes skirmish. The village elder examines the sky for omens. In part 2, the lights rise on the village maidens already engaged in a synchronized, repetitive dance, as if they have been doing this all night. One maiden collapses three times. She is the weakest, the “Chosen One.” She is isolated and forced to perform a frantic, strenuous dance that ends in her death. She is hoisted towards the sky as an offering to the sun-god.
This is the great Beatriz Rodriguez as the Chosen One, in Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of Nijinsky’s original.
In Bausch’s version, I couldn’t figure out how or why the Chosen One is, well, chosen. I have embedded videos of this version below. The piece opens with a single woman, apparently in some pleasant, maybe vaguely erotic reverie on a red cloth laid out on a stage covered in dirt. Slowly other women emerge from the wings; some rush to a point and stop, others meander, or do slow-motion pliés in the dirt. One can’t really tell what any of them are up to. As the music swells and gets more complicated symphonically, the womens’ movements become more spastic and more stereotypically “modern dance” in effect—they flail their arms and kick at the air, jerk their heads and stare, and it is as yet unclear what their agitation signifies. Is this Spring’s reinvigoration of the earth and people? Is it civil unrest? Is it growing hysteria, heralded by the clarinet verging on overblow in video 1, 2:42? I can’t tell, but that’s not a problem for me—yet. As whatever is happening pans out, the woman who had been asleep on the red cloth wakes from her reverie, and shudders at the realization she is holding this red cloth, which, in a scene entirely in brown and nude, stands out as an obvious, ominous, symbol. The women seem repelled and frightened by the cloth dropped downstage left, and for the first time dance in unison (video 1, 3:45). Also for the first time, there is a sensible (to me, at least) tone to their movements: they beat themselves, hunch their backs, squat and lurch clumsily. It seems more like strenuous manual labor than dance. The dirt from the ground sticks to their skin as they sweat; their hair gets more and more disheveled. They begin to seem less like dancers in delicate flesh-colored gauze slips than like half-naked self-flagellating automatons. One dancer breaks away from the group and shakes, doubling over at the abdomen, suggesting enteric distress (video 1, 4:44). Are these people starving? However, the real menace arrives in the forms of the men, appearing at (5:05)—from the time they arrive onstage it is clear that in this society (if it is indeed a society in the literal sense that is being portrayed here) men have total mental and physical power over the women. They charge onstage and the women suddenly disperse and stare at the floor, looking guilty, and like they hope not to be noticed. The mens’ movements are sharp, athletic, expansive; women cower before them, and seem even more naked in their sheer dresses. The women start to play “hot potato” with the red cloth, which almost makes sense if the red cloth represents the death sentence one expects it to based on both familiarity with the traditional story and on the horror with which it has heretofore been regarded in this version—but at one point a woman grabs the cloth out of the dirt and dances with it. Wait a minute–if the cloth is, say, ‘death,’—like “The Lottery”’s cross-marked ticket, and the women all understandably recoil from it, as they have from its revelation, why does she do that. The men grow more abusive, dragging women across the stage and crowding like wolf packs around the isolated ones. This dynamic persists throughout the rest of the piece, until the choosing of the sacrificial victim, in which each woman, trembling and clutching the red cloth to her breast, approaches what might be some sort of priest or elder (video 3, 4:15), as if to ask whether she is the one who must enact the terrible ritual. Finally the priest ‘chooses’ one (video 3, 5:24), and dresses her in the red cloth, which is in fact a loose-fitting slip. Perhaps it makes sense that a modern female choreographer chose to insert and emphasize an element of male-on-female control and abuse into a story that had heretofore been about something different, but I think it detracts from the main theme of this piece, and the one that this piece can express so well: the power of the group over the individual. You can diffuse that theme with stuff about subjugation of one whole gender by the other, but why would you?
Nijinksy’s original portrays the terrifying Darwinian imperative we arose from: the weakest of the lot is destroyed without mercy or sentimentality. Bausch’s piece hints at various forms of wretchedness (starvation, fear, oppression, displacement–at one point (video 2, opening), all the dancers plod in a circle suggesting a sort of Trail of Tears-style mass exodus—but who can tell what’s going on, really?).
In Nijinksy’s work, on the other hand, the people don’t seem too troubled by anything. Their faces are placid, their movements exact, they are elaborately dressed and made-up and seem healthy, if emotionless. We get the impression that ritual human sacrifice is just these people’s idea of how to keep on keepin’ on. You could easily mistake this society for a fairly civilized one until you realize what they’re on about. It reminds me of the contradictions of ancient Rome—they were so advanced in so many ways, yet eviscerations were their Jersey Shore. There is no hint of any soul-searching, or indeed, of the concept of “soul.” The only fear we see is in the shaking knees of the “Chosen One” after she is chosen: she is the only one who conveys anything we would recognize as human emotion, and she only does that after she has been isolated from the group, the implication being that what we know as “feeling” is a luxury one can only enjoy, or suffer, if isolation from “the group” (or “mob” or “society” or what have you) is not in itself a death sentence. For all this people’s apparent sophistication—they wear clothes, they farm, they organize rituals and pray—they still live like animals of prey. Only the weak separate from the herd and so must die.
My point is that it is less terrifying to see the horrific things human beings do to one another in times of misery than it is too see them doing the same things as mundanities. But I suppose anterior to that, my dissatisfaction with the piece stems from resentment at not being able to tell what is happening on a superficial level, not being able to follow the story or deduce whether there even is a story. If a piece is entirely abstract, then one can give oneself over to be moved by whatever emotions or ideas those abstractions elicit. But if there is a storyline, or even a suggestion of a story, it should be made clear enough to allow us to focus, both intellectually and emotionally, on the themes, on the heightened vision of ourselves that dance can show us, the stuff that’s both higher and more profound than plot. One can’t give oneself over to be moved by portrayals of human experience while simultaneously trying to sort out what that experience is.
I’ve linked to high-quality videos of Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1978 recording of the piece. Of course the dancers I saw at Paris Opera were slimmer and longer-limbed, but the choreography speaks for itself, and Bausch does choreograph for a diversity of both body type and technique.