It’s hard to imagine that the dance premieres in Northeast Ohio on Saturday, April 13, and Thursday, April 18, in 2013 will come close to duplicating the ruckus that occurred on Thursday, May 29, 1913, at Paris’ Theatre des Champs-Elysees.

On that evening nearly a century ago, an audience of elites and bohemians reacted to the newest Ballets Russes work, “The Rite of Spring,” with catcalls, cheers, fisticuffs and more. It was a riot in every sense of the word.

With its pagan setting and sacrificial virgin, clomping choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and radical music by Igor Stravinsky, the ballet was a major scandal, though the score soon would take a place as one of the iconic works in music history.

The centenary of “Le sacre du printemps” is being celebrated around the globe this season with hundreds of performances by dance companies, orchestras and duo pianists (playing the four-hand version Stravinsky wrote concurrently with the orchestral score).

Northeast Ohio is among the regions bursting with “Rite” activity, especially this month, when two local professional companies, GroundWorks DanceTheater and Verb Ballets, present new versions of the ballet a week apart.

And there’s more. In August at Blossom Music Center, the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet and the Cleveland Orchestra will provide a hint of what the fuss was about in 1913 when they perform a reconstruction of the original Paris production.

But back to April 2013. Don’t expect this month’s adaptations to resemble what Nijinsky concocted a century ago, when the choreography and concept incited opening-nighters to uncivilized behavior that was tamed only when Parisian police showed up.

David Shimotakahara, artistic director of GroundWorks, and Richard Dickinson, rehearsal director of Verb, have made no attempt to reproduce the artistic ambience of the first production. They’ve come up with newfangled narratives for their respective versions that play variations on “Rite” themes.

Both productions discard the original scenario of ancient Slavic tribes celebrating spring through the sacrifice of a maiden. Shimotakahara entirely avoids specifics of time, place and gender. Dickinson, inspired by wild qualities of the Fauvism movement in France in the early 20th century, has devised a tale of surrender and familial tension, as suggested in his augmented title, “The Rite of Spring: The Bride Unseen.”

The versions differ in other respects. GroundWorks will dance to Stravinsky’s orchestral score as performed live by the Akron Symphony Orchestra under music director Christopher Wilkins.


For his Verb incarnation, Dickinson is using the composer’s four-hand version — which he played in private with Claude Debussy before the 1913 premiere — interpreted on a recording by pianist Fazil Say (both parts, thanks to the magic of overdubbing).

Dickinson has known the music of “The Rite” since he studied Stravinsky’s innovative score in a graduate course at Case Western Reserve University.

“I was familiar with the percussion of it and the beat,” he said. “It was those pounding rhythms. I thought I could do something with that.”

Listening to the earthy rhythms, folklike themes and multilayered textures, Dickinson began to envision a contemporary story of arranged marriage full of “potentially interesting characters.” An avid reader, he is drawn to people in the quirky novels of John Irving — including his most recent book, “In One Person” — and other writers.

The cross-dressing grandfather in the Irving novel has a counterpart in Dickinson’s ballet, whose cast includes a gay priest, biker father, trucker mother (based on the choreographer’s sister) and warring families (in place of the original’s tribes).

“The groom sees the mother of the bride and starts to have a fantasy trip about her,” said Dickinson. “The bride and groom haven’t seen each other. There will be a sacrifice.”


The idea of ritualistic sacrifice bothered GroundWorks’ Shimotakahara, who couldn’t reconcile the plight of The Chosen One — as she is called in the original ballet — who emerges from the pack of maidens and dances herself to death.

“The big question for me was: What if she made a choice herself, which in some way separated her from the group?” said Shimotakahara. “That becomes the polarity of the piece: individual self-will against the group and the idea of freedom to choose.

“You can have this other way of thinking or be part of a vision that represents change, renewal, rebirth, and opposing that is the fear of change. These two ideas are present throughout our lives. It doesn’t matter who we are. This is what we deal with as people.”

Shimotakahara has renamed the central maiden The Other. She is joined in forging a new path by two maidens, who eventually abandon her, leading The Other to be ostracized before she dies.

“Even though it’s not always successful in terms of changing the tide, it’s also a triumph of the will,” said Shimotakahara. “That represents a kind of hope.”

The two new “Rite” productions vary in scale beyond musical settings. While Verb is using its eight dancers for “The Bride Unseen,” GroundWorks’ five company members will team with three more professional dancers and 15 students.

The GroundWorks performance is part of an ongoing Akron Symphony project that enlists members of the community for numerous endeavors, including the “Gospel Meets Symphony” program, an annual event for two decades.

To select community participants for his “Rite,” Shimotakahara auditioned dozens of young dancers and chose a group from the University of Akron’s Dance Institute, Kent State University, Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet, Firestone High School, Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and two elementary schools.

“It’s a huge range in terms of experience and movement capability,” said Shimotakahara. “I set a goal: Now I have to create something artful that will be a cohesive and interesting theatrical production.”

Both choreographers have relished the opportunity to decipher the rhythms and thematic material in Stravinsky’s score while adding new perspectives to a seminal ballet. At the April 13 performance in Akron, GroundWorks will dance in front of the Akron Symphony, which will be linked to the action by way of a large screen that focuses on the musicians.

“It’s been a new venture,” said Shimotakahara. “We’re opening ourselves out to what that can become. It has great value. Artistically, for me it’s been a wonderful experience. Hopefully, we’ll reach people who have never seen us before.”

Dickinson also had a defined goal when conceiving his “Rite.”

“I set out to make the ‘Rodeo’ of the 21st century,” he said, referring to the popular 1942 ballet with music by Aaron Copland and choreography by Agnes de Mile. “It’s a modern ballet based on a modern family.”

By Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer