Whilst a celebratory centenary performance of Stravinsky’s masterful The Rite of Spring has already been planned next month on the very evening of the work’s première, another performance of the work has recently captured the imagination of Paris’ music and dance aficionados: Stravinsky en mode hip hop (“Stravinsky, hip-hop style”). The composer has recently become something of a buzzword, and this concert, set in the Grande Hall of Paris’ La Villette, has been a highly anticipated event, but not only by seasoned concert-goers: tonight was packed with a mix of the young and the not-so-young, the hall buzzing with what was clearly an excited audience (the poster alone of Stravinsky wearing a crooked pink baseball cap was undoubtedly enough to lure those stung by curiosity).
Before delving into the world of a “hip” Stravinsky, we were first reminded of what else the Russian master was capable. Petrushka’s wind opening brought to mind the busy and bustling Russian fair in which the work opens, characterised beautifully by the orchestra Les Siècles under the direction of French conductor François-Xavier Roth. However, it was immediately clear to me, sitting in the back half of the Grande Halle, that the hall’s acoustics were a force to be reckoned with, and one that was unfortunately getting the better of the orchestra. The sound from the strings lacked the furious panache and Russian spirit so characteristic of this work. Despite this slight lack of compensation for the acoustics I am nonetheless in no doubt of Roth and the orchestra’s talent: 2012 was a year of prestigious awards for the orchestra, and despite the slightly dampened power of them here, it was obvious why this orchestra has garnered so much attention. Whilst an orchestra is clearly the sum of its parts, Les Siècles somehow transcends this: filled with playful conducting from Roth, the orchestra was as tight as could be, and ultimately their thinned power in this hall only made for a clearer sound, allowing for each voice to be heard perfectly (even if, unfortunately, the ending pizzicatos dissolved before being able to reach me).
Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique was to be the first of two examples of tonight’s new “hip” Stravinsky, as three contemporary street dancers demonstrated their impressive dancing skills, accompanied by the frantic music (composed by Stravinsky after a passionate reading of Maeterlinck’s The Life of the Bee). Whilst the dance style appeared to be a mix of the never-uncool 80s dance move “The Robot” with a contrasting fluidity of body movements (the closest thing I can liken it to is “Dubstep dancing”, which can be viewed online), the result was ultimately an intriguing set of visual movements, matched perfectly to the music. As the dancers moved from static and angular movements to smooth and wide-arched sweeps, it seemed as if the dance on stage followed perfectly Stravinsky’s equally angular, yet also melodically smooth, lines, both dance and music ultimately juxtaposing two opposed styles to form a unique effect.
Moving from three dancers to an entire troupe of dancers (the Melting Spot Dance Company, made up of an impressively wide range of ages), The Rite of Spring set off, with its distinctive, haunting bassoon theme calling everyone’s attention. Fortunately, the orchestra seemed to have regained gusto in the second half, fighting bravely against the insipid acoustics and finally hitting the back benches.
It is best to avoid comparisons of performances when attending a concert, as it quite often distracts and ultimately detracts from the uniqueness of every performance. However, I could not help but recall the 2009 UK production of The Rite of Spring by BalletBoyz, blending various forms of street dance, hip hop, contemporary, tango and even pole dancing, all in celebration of Stravinsky’s masterpiece; but I am actually thankful for such a comparison, since it allowed for an understanding of where this particular production got it right. Whereas I felt that the BalletBoyz production was ultimately focused on showcasing the talents of its dancers rather than interpreting the violence of the music, Melting Spot were clearly tethered to a musical root. Although certain passages left me slightly unconvinced, it was obvious that this choreography had, by and large, been meticulously crafted with Stravinsky’s disturbing and incessantly shifting music in mind: from the unmistakable “Augurs of Spring” to the final “Sacrificial Dance”, the dancers made use of their bodies in ways that only a contemporary dance-style choreography could conceive. This new production may not have been perfect, but it was certainly raw, and undoubtedly captured the intensity and violence of Stravinsky’s vision in a new and refreshing manner.
Although I try to avoid puns like the plague, this one is very tempting, and true: following such a fantastic performance, both the orchestra and the dancers were met with... riotous... applause.