The 1913 premiere of Igor Stavinsky’s masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, incited riots among its Paris audience and signified the end of romanticism and the beginning of modernism. In honor the piece's 100th anniversary, the San Francisco Ballet is premiering its own somewhat controversial version, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. Soloist James Sofranko talks about Stravinsky’s impact on the art world, and the challenges of reinterpretation.
SFMAG: Why is Rite of Spring so important?
JS: There were riots and people booing in the audience at the premier. Stravinsky turned the art world on its head, and in the years since then, many musicians and choreographers, including George Balanchine and Philip Glass, were influenced by him. There is a raw energy in his portrayal of a more primal and animalistic society. [The story] connects to a deep instinctual urge in our being, where we react to our gut, not our minds—a dark side that none of us [really] know. In the ballet, her lover has to decide to fight for or turn against her. What would we do in that situation? It’s a hard choice to make as we do things [sometimes] because of social pressures.
If you were in Paris premiere audience, do you think you would have reacted the same?
There are trends and ideas that we all collectively gravitate towards. When you believe what everyone else believes, it’s hard to be that person who says this is good or bad. One hundred years later, I think we are more about being individuals and breaking out of traditional modes. I hope I would have liked the ballet and thought that this is the best piece of art I have every seen, but then again, I could have been offended. It’s hard to say. I’m just happy we have expanded this idea of what art can be.
You co-directed rehearsals with the ballet’s choreographer, Yuri Possokhov. What vision does he bring to this reinterpretation?
Dance is an art that is passed down from person to person so it does evolve and change. Rite of Spring is still evolving 100 years later. Yuri is taking a traditional piece and moving forwards. He’s doing brand new choreography, but the music is still the same. I really enjoy that type of thing. He is more about the big picture of the step, the energy—fast, slow, sharp, etc. “Guys I need more feeling,” he’ll say. There are still pirouettes and pliets though.
What challenges did you face re-interpreting a 100-year-old play?
The music, even though it’s also one of the main inspirations. It’s written in a very unusual and irregular time signature, which is hard especially when you’re choreographing many people. But the more you hear it, the more you don’t have to count. Your body and mind knows what’s coming next.
What kind of dance and movement should we expect to see?
Yuri uses a lot of classic techniques, but there’s also room for interpretation. It’s not cut and dry and the dancers can express themselves. [Yuri] is a big guy. He moves really large, so the movement and gestures look really expansive. Also, the movement is very grounded and a lot more heavy into the earth. You’re not concerned so much about your beautifully pointed foot up on the air, but more the energy.
What’s your favorite part of the ballet?
There’s a part where the elders choose the girl who is being sacrificed, and [the dancers] gather her and lead her in a procession down the path, back to the village. Everyone is wild, but falling into one line, getting behind the idea of sacrificing her for whatever reason. It’s group mentality, and its scary and powerful.
“The Rite of Spring,” runs through March 10, sfballet.org