at the Auditorium Theatre

March 13-18

Talk about the Joffrey Ballet often revolves around its repertory, which is notoriously split between reconstructed works, such as Balanchine’s 1932 Cotillon and Nijinsky’s 1913 Le sacre du printemps, and modern ballets, generally those of Gerald Arpino, who founded the company in 1956 with Robert Joffrey and became its artistic director after Joffrey died in 1988. There is a split, but to me it’s less a matter of dates than of outlook. The Joffrey usually displays a sunny, pastel charm, but every once in a while it plunges into a cold, dark, almost saturnine element.

This year the Joffrey has revived Bronislava Nijinska’s Les noces (“The Wedding”), and its inclusion on a program at the Auditorium with her brother Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’apres-midi d’un faune (1912) and Sacre made for a serious evening indeed. Les noces has been revived periodically since it premiered in Paris in 1923, so it hasn’t caused the same kind of sensation as the revival of Nijinsky’s Sacre, which hadn’t been seen for more than 70 years. But Nijinska’s Les noces is at least as shocking as her brother’s more famous work, and it’s far more modern.

Les noces and Sacre are companion pieces: both are set to Stravinsky scores, both draw on Russian folk life and ritual. Both tell the story of a sacrifice–more specifically, of how the old sacrifice the young in fertility rites that ensure the tribe’s continuity. But in Sacre the Chosen One is set apart from her race and must die. The bride in Les noces does not die, but her fate is far more universal. Her mortal union with a man she doesn’t know, much less love, is as terrifying in its way as the Chosen One’s “marriage” with Yarilo, the sun god to whom she’s sacrificed.

Before I saw Sacre, I’d always wondered how this music, which sounded to me like a glorious traffic accident, could represent anything natural much less springlike. After seeing it danced, I realized I’d had in mind a conventional pastoral, a genre Sacre turns on its head. Typically the pastoral, an urban invention, reads into country life all the naturalness and innocence unavailable in “civilized” society. But in Sacre, Stravinsky and Nijinsky read into country life all the brutality and materialism of 20th-century life in the city. Though Sacre is clearly an outdoor dance, our sense of the surrounding huge, feverishly growing vegetable world bathed in harsh sunlight only makes these rites seem more cruel.

Les noces is an indoor dance. It moves in four “tableaux” from the home of the bride to the groom’s home, back to the bride’s, and finally to the scene of the wedding feast. One is conscious of walls, of the pressure of a more civilized but no less inexorable society than the one ruling Sacre. In Sacre the dancers’ brilliant, florid costumes and their seemingly constant movement reiterate the natural imperative to reproduce. Les noces–with its utterly simple, uniformlike brown-and-beige costumes and its choreographic emphasis on stillness–insists on the social imperative, which represses individual vitality and feeling.

Both Les noces and Sacre show a painter’s sensibility. In Sacre, Nijinsky uses blocks of bright color–the different groups of dancers, men, women, various tribes–and shifts the movement from one block to another, so we never lose the sense of feverish activity. The movement he creates, especially in the Chosen One’s sacrificial dance, is relentlessly upward; the line of the dance is vertical, you’re aware of the dancers desperately trying to fill the space above their heads. In Les noces Nijinska creates a horizontal line–even though she employs the jumps her brother used in Sacre, the dancers are frequently hunched over. What you see then is an army of backs (the corps in the last scene is 30 dancers). Frequently the dancers lay their heads on their own outstretched arms or on others’ shoulders, to create a line of sideways faces. The dance’s tableaux are usually layered, the dancers at different levels starting near the floor, to create a landscape of gently rising hills. Even the bride’s famous ten-foot braids, when they’re held straight out from her head on either side, enhance the horizontal look.

Sacre, for all its power, gives the impression of a distant time and place. Les noces, which evokes Soviet Russia (Nijinska was living in Russia during the Revolution), is the here and now. Nijinska has an abstract painter’s taste for suggestive simplicity–one or two strokes bring out a whole complex of feelings. The mother’s brief solo in the third tableau, which ends with her kneeling in the same position of resigned submission the bride had held in the dance’s opening, quietly limns her grief. The bride and bridegroom’s dance, which takes place on a raised stage at the rear, just above the heads of the corps, happens in bursts of widely separated, simple movement: there’s a brief chase; the groom frames the bride’s head with his arms, as it had been framed in the first tableau by her friends’ arms; they hold hands; they embrace; the bride walks away, spreads her arms, and wraps them around herself. Once the bride and bridegroom enter the bedroom, and the double doors are closed behind them, the two mothers stand and face the doors, their backs to us: Are they guarding the door, listening for the sounds of consummation? Or ready to rush in and retrieve their children from a new and terrifying situation? Their simple standing before the doors has more resonance than the knocking knees of the Chosen One in Sacre, which evoke nothing so much as a silent movie.

Other programs included the second of the Joffrey’s premieres, Lacrymosa, company member Edward Stierle’s tribute to Robert Joffrey set to selections from Mozart’s Requiem. But despite its sober subject, Lacrymosa does not fall into the Joffrey’s saturnine class. With its spangled costumes and shafts of light splashing the backdrop, this dance inhabits the same cartoonish, heavenly realm as Arpino’s Round of Angels. The costumes and lighting are unfortunate, because Lacrymosa has some interesting, if sometimes impenetrable, choreography.

Lacrymosa invites an allegorical reading, but the roles played by the three featured dancers are obscure. My companion suggested that the man in black (Daniel Baudendistel) was death, the man in flesh-colored tights (Tom Mossbrucker) the dying man, and the woman in black (Jodie Gates) his mourning lover. The dance’s opening and closing action made that seem a likely interpretation, until I remembered the section in which the figure of death seemed to seduce the woman away from the dying man. Also obscure were the dance’s repeated references–an assymetrical shoulder stand in particular–to Arpino’s choreography.

The choreography for the corps–five men bare-chested and in flesh pink tights, so that they look very naked, and five women in satiny moss green dresses–is less opaque, more abstract, and more moving. In one striking section, all five men stand in a line facing the wings. A man enters at the rear of the line and faces the opposite direction, then the woman in black enters, also at the rear. All step slowly to center stage, the five men walking backward, the latecomer walking forward, the woman partnered by one man after another until she reaches the downstage end of the line. In another section all five men leap and tumble in a circle around Mossbrucker’s staring figure. An undulating collapse to the floor becomes the lovely, unlikely preparation for a leap. Impressive stuff for the 22-year-old Stierle.

Falling into the Joffrey’s pastel group, despite occasional dark touches, are Cotillon, Paul Taylor’s 1981 Arden Court, and Arthur Saint-Leon’s 1848 La vivandiere pas de six. In La vivandiere the Joffrey dancers, especially Tina LeBlanc and Stierle as the featured couple, are like well-trained ponies going brilliantly through their paces. But Arden Court, with its references to the hunt and to men’s dances of all kinds–the hornpipe, the jig, the cossacks’ dance–requires a bigger, freer look, which the Joffrey dancers didn’t quite manage with authority.

For this engagement the Joffrey also revived Arpino’s 1970 Trinity, which has not been seen in Chicago since 1982. This singlemindedly bright, happy paean to rock and the age of Aquarius hasn’t worn well. Critic Arlene Croce’s thoughts on the dance, published in 1971, are irresistible: “The vocabulary of movement is so small yet so propulsive that watching the ballet is like getting a love letter from an illiterate, all in capitals.” When it comes to love letters, context is everything. The context for Trinity is gone, and if anyone’s heart beat faster some 20 years ago upon receiving this letter, we may wonder why today.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Herbert Migdoll.