Volume 19 Issue 38 | February 2 -8, 2007


“The Rite of Spring”
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
30 Lafayette Ave., near Flatbush Ave.
Feb. 3 at

Photo by Tony Jones

Nicholasleichterdance performs “The Rite of Spring,” a new world premiere commissioned by The Brooklyn Philharmonic to close their program “Earth Awakened,” at BAM on February 3.

An out-of-the-box ‘Rite’

Nicholas Leichter and Brooklyn Phil take on Stravinsky

By Lori Ortiz

One could say that Nicholas Leichter came to a crossroad last year with his “Carmina Burana.” After dancing his urban experience for 11 years, he is taking on the classics and finding a future in creating a dialogue between past and present.

People had responded to the choreographer’s fusion of contemporary styles over the years, but it became an albatross.

“I’m not into ghettoizing things,” he said. “It’s 2007. Haven’t we moved beyond all these labels? Once you get past that a lot of things open up.”

A door opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Leichter walked through. After a tireless search and an audition process, Michael Christie, the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s artistic director and conductor, commissioned Leichter to create a “Carmina Burana” for BAM’s resident orchestra, as part of an effort to present local artists and performing arts relevant to their community.

For Christie, NLD is Brooklyn. Their spirit and vocabulary reflect the Borough of Kings.

It’s an unusual approach but Leichter sees building partnerships and widening infrastructures as the way of the future.

“You’re not climbing up the modern dance food chain anymore,” he said. “I feel grateful that I’m being asked to work outside the box.”

After a very well-received performance at BAM, “Carmina Burana” toured to Oswego upstate. There Leichter found that it could work with just two pianos, full percussion, and vocals.

Few people know that composer Carl Orff’s ’30s cantata “Carmina Burana” was intended as total theater with movement. Leichter wanted us to appreciate it away from the Nazi milieu that tainted it. There are only a few “Carmina Burana” dances. Ailey has one by John Butler.

More than 150 performers — NLD, the orchestra, and vocalists comprising three choirs — on the Opera House stage posed a real challenge for Leichter. “Rite” is looking very promising, and does not pose the same issues of scale.

“It’s more of dance piece,” he said. “The Rite of Spring” could be considered a choreographer’s rite of passage.

“This time I had time to really sit down and really figure out what I wanted to do,” he said.

When a call came on his cell phone, and the Philharmonic wanted to get together again, Leichter was ready.

Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” was created in collaboration with choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky in 1913 for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Since then, more than 100 versions have been choreographed to the Stravinsky score. To name several modern ones, Leichter cited Paul Taylor’s, Stephen Petronio’s, and Emmanuel Gat’s. Its popularity and familiarity didn’t daunt Leichter. In fact it attests to the piece’s suitability — and audiences’ receptiveness — for infinite reinterpretation.

“The music is so passionate and crazy, with incredible range of tempo and emotion. It’s challenging. It doesn’t hold your hand,” Leichter said. But he found that many people are intimidated by the music, even if it has inspired many dancemakers. He wanted to bring out its lyricism, the “space” in the music that people don’t always hear.

In rehearsal, Leichter’s dancers’ sensual hips sway and curvilinear arms scoop in earthy agrarian marches. The small troupe of seven pass each other across the stage, carrying the beat in their feet with torsos upright and angular arms bent at the elbows, Egyptian style. The original’s primitivism is preserved even when the men spin on their butts and in duets that are complex entanglements. A folksy circle dance, samba couples, bring together past and present, opposite points of the globe, mellifluous and musical.

Leichter marveled at the lack of hostility in the music’s crashing horns and trumpets. In his version, as in the original, the energy is channeled into ritual. Two voices clash in pugilistic confrontation.

“Calm down,” Jared Kaplan urges by grasping Aaron Draper’s head and then letting him walk away to chill. Everyone watches from the side to see what will happen. Whatever he does, he has them to answer to.

“I didn’t need to make a story ballet about a virgin,” Leichter said. There is no chosen one. They’re all sacrificed. “We’re all dying soldiers — no — toy soldiers. At what point do we step out of order to change things, to make our voices heard?”

“The Rite” is not joyous or colorful in any version I’ve seen. In a pained solo, Dawn Robinson undulates from head to toe and then drops to the floor defeated. Leichter asks, through her, “Why does it have to be so hard?”

He explained, “They — er, that is, their characters — will not be going out for cocktails after the rehearsal.”

The dancers wear work costumes, “with a surprise inside.” Leichter doesn’t say how it’s resolved — only that they don’t die in the end.

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