What a difference a century can make. A large number of the Parisians who attended the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” in May 1913 sneered and jeered at the earthy ballet with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky.
No riot ensued Saturday at Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, where the Akron Symphony Orchestra teamed with Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater and guests in a spellbinding new version of “The Rite” choreographed by GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotahakara. Instead, the audience reacted as if something galvanic had occurred.
It had. The production compelled spectators to consider “The Rite” from a contemporary perspective. Shimotakahara’s conception bore only passing resemblance to the original scenario about pagan Russian practices in springtime. He transported the narrative into a more abstract world, still with hints of ritual, but stripped of local color or period implications.
The dancers – GroundWorks’ five members, three other professionals and an ensemble of 15 Akron area students – almost looked like they were dressed for rehearsal. Short black and gray attire gave them ample freedom to concentrate on Shimotakahara’s intense and bold realization of the boiling rhythms in Stravinsky’s score.
With arms often held aloft or in symbolic configurations, the dancers inhabited a concise saga about community versus individual, the latter represented by a figure called The Other (she’s known as The Chosen One in the original). She appears at the outset, instead of emerging late in the piece, already established as an independent spirit.
The Other develops the following of two loyal figures, who eventually are forced to submit to societal pressures and abandon her. She dances herself to death in an expression of conviction and defiance.
Dance versions of “The Rite” have major shoes to fill: living up to the challenges posed by Stravinsky’s explosive and haunting music. Shimotakahara’s responses to the score conveyed the menacing qualities through vibrant unison and circular patterns and a general sense of impending doom. (The subtle lighting helped mightily in this regard.) Whether seasoned or aspiring, the dancers thrust themselves into the communal activity, aside from GroundWorks member Noelle Cotler, who was an elegant dynamo as The Other. She brilliantly conveyed the character’s determination and need to set herself apart. Felise Bagley and Annika Sheaff made fluent and vivid contributions as her fair-weather peers. The performance was part of a series of community projects presented by the Akron Symphony, which deserves plaudits for helping to put a new spin on a monument of the orchestral repertoire. Led by music director Christopher Wilkins, the ensemble played the score (far upstage) with fine attention to detail and sonority. Wilkins’ account was confident, generally brisk and mindful of contrasts in color and atmosphere.
“The Rite” occupied the second half of the program, which began with a mellow and fragrant account of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Seating the orchestra on the stage apron brought the players close to the audience but also pointed out the notorious capriciousness of Thomas Hall’s acoustics.
Without reflective surfaces behind the musicians, many wind and even some brass lines sounded distant, and the festive moments had less ebullience than a more transparent hall would have allowed. But what could be heard confirmed the bountiful strengths of the Akron Symphony.
By Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer