"Sacre - The Rite of Spring"
Ramsay Burt
Ballet-Dance/CriticalDance Forum, March 1, 2005

Sacre - The Rite of Spring began and ended with brief extracts from an interview in which Stravinsky reminisced about his most celebrated piece. In between these, while a recording of The Rite of Spring was played loud enough to make the audience feel the physical impact of each of its primitive booms and crashes, Raimund Hoghe and Lorenzo De Brabandere performed slow, simple, tasks that gradually built up a ritualistic intensity. Most people who regularly attend dance performances will probably have seen at least one piece set to this famous score -- there have been over 160 ballets and dances choreographed to it. What was exceptional about Hoghe's version was the subtle way it related to the music. While the movement did not attempt to follow its driving pace or complex, irregular rhythms, the performance was actually more strenuous than it looked. Dancers often seemed out of breath -- unusual perhaps in Hoghe's work.
Not only were movement tasks cleverly fitted into the different sections of the score, but they often matched them in idiosyncratic ways. At one point Hoghe trod jerkily along a line towards the audience with little shivering steps as if unable to resist the frenetic tension building in the music.
Accompanying an abrupt, primitivist fanfare, De Brabandere made a short diagonal, full tilt run ending in an abrupt halt after which he calmly walked to the back of the stage and threw himself into another diagonal run when the fanfare repeated.

Most of the movement tasks, however, were low key. In one, both men faced each other and slowly raising their arms forwards and upwards like the start of the yoga exercise 'Salute to the Sun'. The piece began with them lying on the lino at right angles to one another, De Brabandere's ankles lying over Hoghe's; slowly, with a rising, lyrical phrase in the music, Hoghe raised his lower legs a little way above the ground, lifting De Brabandere's as he did so, before slowly lowering them again. First one then the other stood up, walked two different sides of a rectangle, and lay down again in the same configuration before going through the task again.

One more example. Both lay in a line facing the ground with their heads touching; while De Brabandere pushed his body up with his arms, Hoghe propelled himself forwards with his toes to creep a little way under him, then reversed back again. Hoghe then lifted himself up and De Brabandere pushed himself forwards under Hoghe using his arms.

The piece's title, in French and English, emphasises the idea of ritual. People who dedicate their lives to religious observance go through the same actions -- lighting a candle, or bowing -- every day so that not only are the motor actions habitual but so is the emptying out of self necessary to dedicate the action to a god. Hoghe and De Brabandere seemed to be emptying themselves in a comparable way as they performed their unaffected movement tasks.

At the end of the piece, we listened to Stravinsky's voice reminiscing about returning in the 1960s to the room in the little Swiss village where he wrote Sacre, adding something to the effect that the piece had had a life of its own and had written itself; he the composer had been the vessel through which the music had passed. Throughout their piece, it was as if Hoghe and De Brabandere were vessels through which Sacre passed, as they sensed the way their individual or unison movements were dovetailing together and the resonance these were creating as they matched up to the music. Sitting in the second row of the audience, I felt like a witness to their sensitivity to these complimentary, resonating affects.

In Nijinsky's 1913 ballet, the dancers' feet were turned inward, contradicting the balletic convention of 'turn out' to create heavy, gravity bound movements. A great deal of Hoghe's Sacre was performed kneeling, squatting, or lying on the floor. In terms of social convention, it is usually considered undignified and disrespectful to move around the floor in public; Hoghe had thus perhaps found a twenty-first century equivalent to Nijinsky's turned in feet.

There is also an unavoidable frisson in seeing two men moving together and touching in an intimate way, particularly when one of them has a twisted spine and disabilities. At one point De Brabandere lay flat on his back. Hoghe squatted behind him and lifted De Brabandere's relaxed, right arm shifting it each time a few degrees in measured stages, letting it go to thump soundly on the lino. When De Brabandere's arm had been moved from lying at his side to stretched straight out at shoulder level, Hoghe then lifted it up to vertical and down again, before going through the same sequence with the left arm.

Hoghe is the size and weight of a young adolescent but his delicate, lined face suggests age, knowledge and experience. Although much of the movements that he and De Brabandere performed were the same, often in mirrored symmetry, there was a sense of the two of them present in their differences in the space. And although both adopted a neutral, almost impersonal manner, nevertheless Hoghe had a much stronger presence. I therefore found myself looking at De Brabandere as if through Hoghe's eyes, particularly when Hoghe touched him. To be clear, I saw nothing queer or homoerotic in the piece. But De Brabandere, in T-shirt and trainers, seemed beautiful because he was framed by the power of the older man's presence, and because De Brabandere himself seemed unaware of this framing. The effect was comparable to the way, in Death in Venice, Tadzio is seen through von Aschenbach's eyes, or Peter Schlessinger is framed in David Hockney's early paintings. Hoghe, too, in his own way has his own particular beauty which derives from his own unselfconscious vulnerability and self awareness.

While most of Sacre, The Rite of Spring consisted of abstract movement, the choreography of the last section, when the chosen one usually dances herself to death, was overtly symbolic, involving the use of the kinds of simple, inexpensive objects Hoghe has used in most of his pieces. A square of red cloth was brought on, unfolded, and carefully laid flat on the front left hand side of the stage. Then Hoghe brought a clear rectangular bowl of water and placed it centrally at the front of the stage. The two men kneeled either side, facing one another, and one by one bowed forward to dip their face in the water. Then De Brabandere flicked water in Hoghe's face. The piece ended when each lay down either side of the bowl and placed a hand in the water.

Purity, baptism, rebirth, or fluid boundarilessness? Like the best symbolism, these actions resonated on a number of levels without being tied to any particular meaning. Hoghe has a deeply European sense of history and of the seriousness of art, and Sacre, The Rite of Spring is a very sophisticated piece. Its conceptual basis is accessible to the kind of intellectually complicated reading that has been fashionable for the last few years. But what impressed me most about it was the way the dancers calmly opened themselves to the affective power of their physical experience as they shared the stage, the choreography, the music, and each other's presence.

©Ramsay Burt