Sunday, November 11, 2007

‘Rite of Spring’ as Rite of Passage



Rite of Spring’ as Rite of Passage

Chris Lee
Royston Maldoom, the British choreographer, working with sixth graders from Public School 161 in Manhattan on a dance set to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

Published: November 11, 2007

THE composer Camille Saint-Saëns is said to have stormed out of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris at the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913, angered by the apparent misuse of a bassoon. He wasn’t the only person to lose his cool that night.

Scandalized by the sensuality of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography and the raciness of Stravinsky’s score, the audience hooted and fairly rebelled. Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes presented the performance, was elated. Better publicity could not be bought.

Ninety-four years later the British choreographer Royston Maldoom brings the now canonical “Rite of Spring” to the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights next weekend as part of the Dance Project, in which 120 public school students, ages 7 to 17, will dance to Stravinsky’s music as played by the Berlin Philharmonic. The performances take place on the closing days of Berlin in Lights, a 17-day festival presented by Carnegie Hall. (These two performances are co-produced by the Weill Music Institute and the Berlin Philharmonic’s education program.)

The program, titled “The Rite of Spring Project,” opens with “Songs: Ritual Rhythms,” an original composition for voices and percussion composed by another set of New York City high school students, drawing from Stravinsky. After intermission the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle, will accompany the Dance Project, whose participants were culled from four uptown public schools (the Choir Academy of Harlem, Bread and Roses High School, and Public Schools 153 and 161) and the Harlem School for the Arts.

The entire performance is an uptown affair, since all this activity — choreographic and musical — takes place in Harlem and the resurgent Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights. Like other Manhattan neighborhoods, this swath of real estate, which runs roughly from 135th Street up to 181st Street and from the Hudson River to St. Nicholas Avenue, is experiencing an improbable renaissance, accompanied by upscale restaurants and shops.

The United Palace Theater, at Broadway and 175th Street, was built from 1925 to 1930 as the last of New York’s “Wonder Theaters.” For many years the ornate building, with Moorish and Rococo influences, housed vaudeville shows before being transformed into a deluxe movie house. In 1969 it was purchased by the United Christian Evangelistic Association, under the direction of Dr. Frederick Eikerenkoetter. Reverend Ike, as he is known, still preaches there occasionally, but recently he has transformed the theater into a cultural destination. Iggy Pop and Bjork have performed there this year; 3,000 Annie Lennox fans converged on upper Broadway on Nov. 2.

Mr. Maldoom is a rare bird in the ego-driven world of contemporary dance, concerned with using dance to help bring about social and political change. “I’m a very political animal,” he wrote in an e-mail interview, “and my art is connected to my politics and philosophy.” A 2006 recipient of the Order of the British Empire, Mr. Maldoom took his choreography to Lithuania in 1991 during its independence struggle, to Bosnia in 1995 during the Balkan conflict and to Ethiopia in 1996, where he worked with former street children.

The Dance Project is a reprise of a 2003 program in which he led young Berliners through an original choreography to “The Rite of Spring.” The Lola Award-winning 2004 documentary “Rhythm Is It!” shows the transformation of a motley bunch of mostly disadvantaged immigrant Berlin teenagers into a disciplined troupe eager to join the world rather than be defeated by it. At one point in the documentary Mr. Maldoom declares, “I’m much more interested in education than art.”

In 2004 Carnegie Hall asked him to take on the same project with New York City children as part of Berlin in Lights.

Last month, at a rehearsal at P.S. 161 — a school with spotless hallways and artwork dotting the walls — the students looked anything but nervous. Not yet seasoned performers, they giggled and moved around until they were brought to attention by the rehearsal director, Volker Eisenach, and his dance assistant, Anja Müller, both Berlin natives. During warm-ups, the music instructor, Jan Rudd, asked a student to quiet down; he did so immediately. Several weeks before, many of these students could barely sit still, Ms. Rudd noted. Now most seemed ready for their close-ups.

Minutes later Mr. Eisenach delivered one final instruction: “Give me jumps like you’ve never given before.” And when Stravinsky’s score played on the loudspeaker, mysterious and tentative at first, then rising to a spellbinding climax, the students jumped like gazelles, then gathered downstage in one large group, growling and making menacing faces.

During a rehearsal break Rosa Rosario, a shy 12-year-old, clasped her hands and, giggling, confided: “We’re supposed to be showing the birth of the Earth. Isn’t that great?” Another student, a tiny boy named Alejandro Camilo who had progressed artistically beyond his instructors’ dreams, said the snacks distributed during rehearsals were the best part of the experience.

After their break the students again took to the stage. “Remember to focus and concentrate,” Ms. Rudd told them. They formed two circles and marched briskly, arms extended, in opposite directions. The choreography is harder than it looks, and Ms. Müller asked them to keep spaces between dancers for students from the other schools who would join them in a few weeks.

They marched once more, but Ms. Müller wasn’t satisfied. “Stick your head up, chin out, arms strong!” she shouted. “You are warriors!”

In a split second sluggish sixth graders hardened into a phalanx of soldiers. This is exactly the type of metamorphosis Mr. Maldoom looks for in his young charges. “Young people who are traditionally denied access to the ‘high arts’ have extraordinary potential and can act as a catalyst for meaningful development within the community at large,” he wrote.

One day, perhaps, 20 former P.S. 161 students will reminisce about a dead composer from Russia, a choreographer from Britain and two dance instructors from Germany. They will recall teachers who showed them a world ancient and vast, and how they took the stage and made Stravinsky’s music their own. And perhaps they’ll wonder at how two performances of a pagan dance changed their world.

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