Joffrey Ballet Reconstructs 'Le Sacre du Printemps'

Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.
Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

"The Rite of Spring" (Le Sacre du Printemps) is considered one of the most influential works of the 20th Century. The ballet, originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky with music by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, made its groundbreaking debut in 1913 in Paris with Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. The ballet, which depicts a peasant girl -- The Chosen One -- dancing herself to death during a pagan ritual while men watch on, reportedly evoked riots among Parisian audiences opening night.

Also adding to the audacity of the work was its irreverence to classical form where the choreography called for the dancers to actually turn in their toes and lock their knees inward. Stravinsky's multi-dimensional "frenzied" score was equally brazen for the time with unconventional uses of the wind and string instruments, according to experts.

Since then, an estimated 200 renditions of "The Rite of Spring" have been presented by ballet companies all over the world, but none had attempted to create an exact replica of the original until The Joffrey Ballet. Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and under the artistic direction of Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the company worked with dance historian and choreographer Millicent Hodson and her husband Kenneth Archer who had been diligently reconstructing the masterpiece for 15 years; combing through sketches, reviews, original costume designs, annotated scores and conducting eye-witness interviews.

Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.
Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

On Sept. 3, 1987 during its brief residence in Los Angeles, The Joffrey debuted its acclaimed reconstruction at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

Now, under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater, Southern California audiences will have a rare chance to experience The Joffrey's acclaimed reconstruction again Feb. 1 -3, 2013 at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion celebrating the 25th anniversary of its world premiere in Los Angeles, and also marking the 100th anniversary of the original Nijinsky-Stravinsky production. Other works from choreographers Stanton Welch, Christopher Wheeldon, William Forsythe and Edwaard Liang, will also be presented.

In addition, Hodson and Archer will participate in a symposium at the Music Center during the engagement. The Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction of the original Diaghilev-Nijinsky ballet will also be accompanied by an exhibition and student performances. The festival also recognizes the 10th anniversary of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center series.

One of the Joffrey dancers who will perform in these works is California native Derrick Agnoletti. Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., and a UC-Irvine graduate, Agnoletti first came to Joffrey in 2003 after training for most of his life as a swimmer -- even winning a state championship and swimming on the UCI NCAA swim team. After his high school swim coach sent him to ballet class to learn more coordination, Agnoletti became hooked, and spent his years prior to Joffrey throwing himself into both dance and a variety of water sports. Even with his extensive athletic training in swimming, water polo, volleyball and ballet, Agnoletti says "The Rite of Spring" is one of the most physically taxing ballets he's ever done. He sat down with Artbound to talk about his experience performing the masterpiece and what it's like dancing with The Joffrey.


What's it like performing such a significant production on its anniversary back in California where you're from?

It's really special to be able to do this particular rendition of "Rite of Spring" because it's the closest to the original that's been reconstructed. I think it's important that L.A. audiences can see what Nijinsky did with dance; how it was so unconventional. It's a turn in dance history. The ritualistic part of [the ballet] and compilation with Stravinsky's music is enough to take your breath away.


You've danced in this production before with The Joffrey. Is it a ballet you like to perform?

"The Rite of Spring" is, in my opinion, a scary ballet and being a part of it is frightening as the men in it watch this young girl dance herself to death. The movement for her during the ritual is so difficult on her body that all the girls who are [cast as] The Chosen Ones only dance that one part in the show that night so they can focus and be ready for it.

To be part of this ballet you have to work as a team -- as a unit -- and when it all comes together, and you perform it on stage and finally finish, it's an emotional experience for all of us. I think for L.A. to see that is so important because oftentimes L.A. gets the reputation of being the jazz and hip hop dance community. Those forms of dance are wonderful, but I think it's vital for L.A. to experience us presenting all these other great works juxtaposed with a wonderful piece of art that is turned inside out to tell such an ancient story with Stravinsky's composition being performed live.


It sounds like this ballet is both draining and rewarding. Is it physically very difficult even for you? You're in such great shape!

Yes, because our bodies are put into a position that isn't conventional as a ballet dancer; we're completely turned in whereas in ballet we're typically turned all the way out. Instead of heel to heel, we're toe to toe, and your knees are locked inward and we have to jump and perform all the movement like that. So a lot of us get calf and back problems and we're treating it carefully with extra physical therapy work to strengthen our bodies.

Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.
Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

Are you in any other pieces being performed in L.A.?

Yes, "Son of Chamber Symphony" by Stanton Welch (2012) which was choreographed on me originally. I do the first movement along with four other boys and one of the girls. It's a really cool piece, and very technically demanding in a very balletic way.

Another piece that was originally created on me is "Age of Innocence" by Edwaard Liang (2008). It's a very contemporary ballet.

These pieces along with the others, "After the Rain" (2010) and "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" (2012) are all so different physically. So it's quite an array of rep we're doing there which is exciting.


You worked with Gerald Arpino. Do you have any Arpino memories you'd like to share?

He was a force. Mr. A., as we all called him, was a very demanding man but he was just so in love with people who were driven to dance, and wanted to see us dance with our hearts and soul and let it all go.

When I was first hired, I had taken class with the company while they were on tour in Cupertino, Calif. After class, they asked me to go wait near [Arpino's] office. When I finally went in his office, he was sitting there reading the paper. So I waited until he was finished reading, and he whipped his chair around and said: 'Are you Italian? You look Italian.' I said, 'Yes, 100 percent.' And then he said: 'You dance like a Joffrey dancer. I like you.' And that was it! I got a job and moved to Chicago a week later.

I think that Ashley [Wheater, artistic director] also allows us to be individual artists. With Ashley, it's been a good change with a new breath of life. Mr. A. would be so proud at how we've moved forward. He'd think it's great.

Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.
Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

From a dancer's perspective, what makes Joffrey so unique as a company?

Joffrey is unique as an all-star company. [You dance both as a soloist and as part of the corps de ballet.] Even if you dance a principal role that night, you will be in the corps in Sacre. The only stand out is The Chosen One.

The Joffrey repertoire is also different. For example, in one program we will dance Ashton's "Cinderella" then Wheeldon's "After the Rain" and McGregor's "Infra;" so you have this huge, vast repertoire set on dancers with training from all over the world. You learn here that you can do just about anything, and even if you can't, you work toward it. I think that makes us special; we are individuals working toward the same thing as an ensemble.


What's your favorite place to visit when you're in Southern California?

When I was at UCI, I was a Disneyland season pass holder and went almost every other night. I'm a surfer too so I love to go to the beach and surf. My absolute favorite place is Huntington Beach. They have such good waves, and the beach is spread out so there aren't a lot of people jumping in on you!


For tickets to The Joffrey Ballet at the Music Center and more information about the exhibition and symposium, please call 213-972-0711 or visit musiccenter.org.

Le Sacre du Printemps. | Photo: Herbert Migdoll.

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