At this point in history it's hard to tell which is the more astounding achievement, Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography of ``Le Sacre du Printemps'' or Millicent Hodson's re-creation of his ballet after 75 years of oblivion. The mythic status of ``Le Sacre,'' or ``The Rite of Spring,'' took root at the scandalous premi`ere in Diaghilev's 1913 Paris season, and was sustained as Igor Stravinsky's still-scathing score made its way into the orchestral repertory. Beginning just seven years after the Nijinsky ballet's advent and quick demise, other choreographers started grappling with the ferocious, dissonant music, and with the original theme of ritual sacrifice - a maiden dances herself to death to ensure completion of the seasonal cycle. And each new ``Sacre'' stirred memories of the first - which, of course, fewer and fewer people had ever seen.
The Joffrey Ballet now has resurrected this totem of 20th-century art, seemingly out of thin air. No films or notations of the complete ballet existed. Reconstructor Ms. Hodson pieced together the choreography from scores of big and little clues over almost a decade, working independently with small, nonprofessional groups of dancers. Hodson had to excavate four main levels of information - the movements of the 46 individual dancers, the patterns of small groups, the way the groups were dispersed, and the way all of it went together with the music. This growing catalog of information existed for all that time only in Hodson's mind. Not until she began rehearsing with the Joffrey dancers last summer did she see the whole ballet take shape.
This process represents the highest order of scholarship, and something more. Hodson must have tuned in on Nijinsky's vision, understood how he was building the ballet, and absorbed his creative logic, so that she could supply what was missing from her massive but inevitably incomplete documentation. The finished ballet betrays no awkward lapses of style or choreographic floundering. It may be Hodson's work in spots, but by now Hodson essentially is Nijinsky.
On opening night at City Center the entire dance press, dance luminaries, and a wall-to-wall audience expected a revelation. Well, there were no fistfights or catcalls. The ovation at the end was appreciative, but many turned their backs on the bows and made for the exits. Merce Cunningham, who was in the audience, would probably consider that small dissent a sign of success. Even today, ``Sacre'' could annoy those it didn't impress.
For me, the event was overwhelming. The ballet in the flesh exceeds every sensational claim in its dossier. It is tremendous -emotionally powerful, structurally ingenious, and beautiful besides.
From the first glimpse of the gorgeous scenic design and costumes, devotedly researched after Nicholas Roerich by art historian Kenneth Archer, the stage is like some great cosmic machine - a cyclotron, a giant radar dish - that sucks in and radiates out the forces of the universe.
Nothing in the ballet is naturalistic. All is controlled - preordained. The community must repeat the ritual, step for inexorable step - explosive, dispassionate, unifying, and cruel.
In the opening scenes, small groups gather in conspiratorial circle-games. A 300-year-old woman teaches the young men to jump over sticks in order to predict their future. Trios of women, joined by others, pitch over from the waist and touch the ground. Lines of people tread the ground and leap like animals. A line of bearded elders makes its way through the dancers and one ancient stands in the center as everyone bursts into violent stamping fits.
After an entr'acte, we see 13 maidens, shuffling sideways in a circle, facing out. Their circle widens, contracts, they run, compulsively shifting their places in line. One stumbles briefly. They pause as if uncertain they've seen her, and she quickly scrambles up.
They begin again, and again she falls. This time, they're sure. She's the Chosen. Immediately she's standing curled up, almost broken, in the center, and they begin prostrating themselves to her, falling inward, then outward like sunbursts. On a sudden signal, they cluster to the side, leaving her isolated, ready to begin her final ordeal.
In this Danse Sacrale, the Chosen Maiden becomes the Bride of the Sun. Far from regretfulness or anger or even mundane fear, she longs for her fate, conjures up her own collapse by jumping more and more fiercely into the earth, striving higher and higher toward the sky, and is raised, lifeless, on the triumphant last note by bearskin-clad shamans.
The Joffrey dancers gave this momentous production a fierceness and dedication that are rare on today's ballet stages, led by a transfigured Beatriz Rodriguez as the Chosen Maiden. And I've said nothing about the magnificent music, which at last seems to have found its rightful home.