Sacre—The Rite of Spring. Raimund Hoghe

5 January 2013, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney), Sydney Festival 2013

The year 2013 is the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and which received a riotous reception on its opening night. The story of that night has passed into legend and, as Raimund Hoghe’s Sacre began, a voice-over recounted that tale. We were not told whose words they were but I have assumed they were those of Stravinsky recalling the evening.

But Hoghe’s production is about as far removed from what we have come to know as Sacre as you could imagine, and since 1913 countless choreographers have tried their hand at making their own version. First, the music for Hoghe’s production was a two piano score, played live. While this was pleasurable to listen to, it was an odd experience because orchestral colour is a large part of what makes those other danced versions of Sacre that audiences have seen over the years so powerful, so full of tension, so theatrical, so dramatic—the Joffrey reconstruction, the Pina Bausch version, Maurice Béjart’s production as danced by Tokyo Ballet, Stephen Page’s Rites and Meryl Tankard’s Oracle are the ones I have seen onstage.

Secondly, the work was choreographically extremely limited. Danced by Hoghe, who is small, middle-aged and has a deformed spine, and the much younger, athletic Lorenzo De Brabandere, it consisted of the two dancers balancing against each other, running (De Brabandere sometimes full pelt, Hoghe usually with jerky, stilted movements reflecting his disability), facing each other and looking hard into each other’s eyes, and performing similarly uncomplicated, often repeated movements. No drama or tension there either.

Strelsa Heckelman in the peasant pas de deux from Giselle. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Perhaps the clue to this work comes in the final moment when the voice-over returns (and this time we were told the words are those of Stravinsky). Stravinsky recalls that when writing the work he was not constrained by any theory and he further recalls that a neighbour remembered that while he, Stravinsky, was writing a young boy used to stand outside, listening. The boy kept saying ‘That’s wrong’. Stravinsky’s answer was ‘Wrong for him’.

It is Hoghe’s right to produce a Sacre that has nothing of what we have come to expect. No-one expected Nijinsky’s choreography either. But what I found most interesting as I sat watching this show was Hoghe’s body in performance. It was intriguing to see how his disability affected his centre of balance, or how he compensated physically for the lack of a centred spine as he performed the moves he did. But this is not why I go to the theatre. I longed for a moment of drama, a bit of tension, even some choreography, no matter how simple, that reflected something of the rhythms of the music, which were of course still obvious in the two piano score. There was one moment that jolted me out of a soporific state and that was when, after leaning over a dish of water, De  Brabandere suddenly splashed water into Hoghe’s face. But one splash wasn’t enough to compensate.

Michelle Potter, 6 January 2013

3 thoughts on “Sacre—The Rite of Spring. Raimund Hoghe

  1. The pleasure for me (in what reminded me of a movement piece taken from drama school exercises in twosomes learning to be together quite naturally as listening and responsive bodies) was a quiet one, and came from the modesty of the performance. Both in listening to Stravinsky’s music played by only two pianos and in watching the pianists and the moving bodies of non-stereotypical ‘dancers’. The simplicity of movement allowed observations that came gently and suddenly to mind. One critic apparently found it “painful” to watch the movement of a middle-aged man with a hunchback. One has to wonder why do some of us find that painful? What does it say about us? Why is it not “interesting” or “natural” or “unusual”? Why do we demand tension or conflict? It did take me time to wind down, to stop wanting something the performance wasn’t, and then I did notice some tiny moments of true tension, for example, when it was clear the older man could not mirror the younger man’s movement due to his physical incapacity, a fleeting moment of the triumph of youth and the poignancy of the reality of the cards some of us are dealt. And the ordinariness of bodies in space, asking an audience to look, really look, and notice their own thoughts as they rose into consciousness and fell away, was a breath of fresh air.

    Finally, how unusual it was to see two men moving independently and together, communicating through gaze and touch and gesture without being overly athletic or relying on a display of strength or obvious virtuosity. Now that’s something one doesn’t see often!

  2. Thank you for this response. I appreciate your point of view and there is much that I agree with. The show actually reminded me of Trisha Brown’s work and I have seen some very similar moves from her dancers—especially the bodies leaning towards and balancing against each other—and also a similar quiet intensity in the way her dancers consciously remove themselves from any excessive showiness as they perform. But for me there was still something unsatisfying about the Hoghe production. A sense of theatricality in the body doesn’t have to mean performing virtuosic tricks. It can emerge from any kind of movement (as the so-called postmoderns in the United States and elsewhere have ably demonstrated). To me Hoghe was not able to create any sense of physical or dancerly interest through the body. It was not because of his disability; I think it was simply a very intellectual or conceptual performance and theatre/dance needs more than that in my opinion.

    A day or so ago I heard the two Belgian pianists, Alain Franco and Guy Vandromme, in a very brief interview on ABC Classic FM. The high point came when Christopher Lawrence played a very short extract from the piano reduction of the Stravinsky score. It was for piano four hands rather than two pianos and there was a totally different ‘feel’ to the music. The tension that I think Stravinsky was aiming for was quite noticeable. I’m not sure whether this was because it was played four hands but I suspect from listening to what the pianists said in the interview that they might have worked closely with Hoghe to get the feel to the music that suited the kind of rhythms Hoghe was seeking rather than what Stravinsky created. Again it seemed that an intellectual approach was to the forefront leaving theatricality to flounder a bit.

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