New York — To choreographers, the Stravinsky-Nijinsky "Le Sacre du printemps" is still Mt. Everest. Some say that this Diaghilev production ushered in the 20th century; presaged World War I; was, at the very least, a sign of Nijinsky's forthcoming madness and Stravinsky's barbaric nationality.
The riot that took place after "Sacre's" premiere on May 13, 1913, still stands as the scandalem of all scandales.m Nijinsky's choreography, though lost, still represents the culmination of the body's revolt against natural law, for better or worse. Since 1913 choreographers from massine to Bejart have taken on the score with more or less resounding thuds. Stravinsky's most inspired interpreter, George Balanchine, has pronounced the score undanceable.
So here comes Paul Taylor, blithely announcing a premire of "Le Sacre du printemps" for his company's season at the New York City Center, which ends May 4. And what does yet another contender do with this masterpiece/albatross?
At this point in history, there's probably only one thing to do: Rib it to smithereens. And that is what Taylor has done.
This "Sacre" is a dance within a dance, a comment on style as well as an exposition of style, a self-contained entity that nevertheless preys on cross-references. Subtitled "the rehearsal," this production begins with dancers warming up. The rehearsal mistress enters, hands out props, and the dance proper begins. The dance they perform (or rehearse) concerns a crook, an abducted baby, a cops-and-robbers chase, mass slaughter, and a grand finale in honor of the one survivor (not the baby, but the baby's mom).
Juxtaposition is the mode. Against the traditional libretto about ritual sacrifice and rebirth is Taylor's private-eye scenario. And against the monumentality of the score is a choreographic style that is deliberately flattened and pantomimic rather than kinetically expressive.
This trivialization is the crux of the matter, for the model of Taylor's style is none other than Nijinsky. Nijinsky's two- dimensional silhouette, his archaic stances, his penchant for moving as if stuck in horizontal grooves -- it all gets the sacrificial treatment.
The production abounds in sight gags as well as aural gags. The color scheme of the costumes, for instance, ensures that one associates the baby (in red swaddling) with a (red) bag, which assumes various antitragic functions. But the main impetus is the joke on Nijinsky's hallowed reputation. Archaic gesture becomes increasingly silly as the story heads for its ludicrous climas. It may even be the root of all evil. For the reason the baby gets stolen is that its mother is too stuck in profile to notice what's going on.
"Le Sacre du printemps" is a wicked dance, a funny dance, and something of a boring one, too. All the exaggerations in two-dimensionality are tedious as well as knowing. Teylor's note-for-note imitation of the score is, of course, crucial to his satire, but at times it's more interesting to appreciate the idea behind it than to watch it. That is often true of idea pieces, even one as ingenious as Taylor's. I look forward to talking about this "Sacre," but I don't know that I want to see it again.