School of the Arts dance concert revisits ‘The Rite of Spring’

Featured is Alexis Johnston performing UNCSA Dean of Dance Susan Jaffe’s "Polovtsian Dances” as part of the Rite of Spring at 100 celebration in 2013. UNCSA will reprise portions of the work as part of its upcoming Spring Dance. (Photo by Peter Mueller)

Featured is Alexis Johnston performing UNCSA Dean of Dance Susan Jaffe’s "Polovtsian Dances” as part of the Rite of Spring at 100 celebration in 2013. UNCSA will reprise portions of the work as part of its upcoming Spring Dance. (Photo by Peter Mueller)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In 2013, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition, “The Rite of Spring,” dancers from UNC School of the Arts were invited to join professional dancers from across the nation as part of Carolina Performing Arts’ year-long retrospective, “The Rite of Spring at 100.”

“It was a very big deal because we were the only school invited to dance in Chapel Hill. The rest of the performers were professionals,” said Susan Jaffe, dean of dance at UNCSA. “We performed Shen Wei’s contemporary re-envisioning of ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Wei is a very famous dancer/artist/choreographer/visual artist, who is highly respected for his very deep, rich and visually stunning work.”

The second piece they took to Chapel Hill was Jaffe’s kinetic “Polovtsian Dances,” a re-imagining of a scene from Alexander Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor.” It was first presented by Sergei Diaghilev and choreographer Michel Fokine in Paris in 1909.

Triad arts aficionados will be able to see UNCSA students reprise the two celebrated works during the annual Spring Dance Concert presented by the School of Dance and the School of Design & Production Thursday through April 27 at The Stevens Center. Rounding out the program will be the beloved suite from “The Sleeping Beauty” and a new work by Susan McCullough, a faculty member.

Jaffe said Shen Wei’s choreography is visually striking.

“It features a beautifully painted floor cloth surrounded by black masking, which makes it look as if the cloth is floating in air. The floor is lit up — luminescent — with the dancers’ costumes reflecting the colors of the floor — whites, grays and blacks. It’s a stunning, spectacular piece.”

When Jaffe was creating her version of “Polovtsian Dances,” she considered what was happening at the time when both this composition and “The Rite of Spring” were created in the early 1900s.

“It was just before the war, and Diaghilev had helped shift the paradigm of art and dance in culture in Paris. … He understood that what was really speaking to Parisians at that time was violence, sex and breaking free of realism in art. … Fokine’s choreography started a big trend within Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes to bring something shocking to Parisian audiences,” she said.

The Polovtsy from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” were famous warriors who’d conquer foreign lands and then become the aristocracy, she added.

“These warriors were very much at ease with violence and war, just as ‘The Rite of Spring’ was about violence, sacrifice and death. … I wanted to re-envision the old ‘Polovtsian Dances’ and create a completely contemporary ballet in which we mixed ballet dancers and contemporary dancers. So we took out the veils and the warriors with swords and focused on primal movement, ideas and violent emotion.”

Jaffe worked with Joe Tilford, dean of the School of Design & Production.

“Joe created this gorgeous scenery, as one section of the dance has a beautiful headset wall with primitive paintings — angular and stick-figure drawings. He created the sets before I went into the studio to choreograph one step, so I used it as inspiration for some of the angular, architectural kinds of movements,” Jaffe said.

McCullough, a choreographer and former dean of dance who will soon retire from the UNCSA faculty, has restaged “Sonnet & Fugue,” which she choreographed at SUNY Purchase College in 1995 for the spring concert.

“The work challenges the use of ballet technique and at the same time pushes the use of dynamics and space. This interaction, for me, is the defining beauty of the School of Dance,” she said.

McCullough has worked with two casts of dancers between the contemporary and ballet programs, the high school and college programs. “The more dancers we can get on stage, the better. We want our students to get the experience they need,” Jaffe said.

On “The Sleeping Beauty” suite, Jaffe restaged some sections while collaborating on others with Nina Danilova, a visiting faculty member, faculty member Misha Tchoupakov, and Jared Redick, the new assistant dean of dance.

“This is the kind of program that will dazzle dance aficionados as well as those who have never attended a dance performance in their lives,” said Katharine Laidlaw, executive producer for UNCSA. “From the aesthetic range to the cutting-edge production elements, it is a remarkably bold program, one that would challenge the finest professional companies. It is this ambitious scope, however, that allows our diversely talented students to truly shine.”

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