Profound. Rabid. Profane. Incessant.
Collaborators George Staib, choreographer and artistic director of Staibdance, and Sarah Hillmer, founder of ImmerseATL, ruminated over these words as they tackled the iconic 20th-century composition that incited Parisians to riot over 100 years ago. The hammering notes at the start of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring continue to ripple outward in time as dance companies have responded to Vaslav Nijinsky’s tradition-shattering ballet created for the score.
Staib and Hillmer (Full disclosure: Staib is an ArtsATL contributor) won’t be following in Nijinsky’s footfalls, however, making a clear choice to depart from the primitive, ceremonial movement vocabulary of many prior iterations. Accompanied by pianists (and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director) Robert Spano and Elena Cholakova, their original choreography will be performed on Saturday, April 14, at 8 p.m. in Emerson Concert Hall as part of the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta’s Emerson Series. Admission is free.
“We’re not thinking of it in the old narrative of rituals and virgins, but futuristically,” says Staib. “It’s almost like a reincarnation. These bodies are coming back to life in a new, vivid way. The fertilizer that’s been put down has yielded these bizarre, prosperous people who have a ravenous hunger to move through the next 100 years.”
There’s friction in this choice to resurrect The Rite of Spring and move the conversation around the work forward rather than reflect on its past. The virility and urgency of Staib and Hillmer’s springtime is crystallized when viewing the large ensemble — a blend of 15 Staibdance, ImmerseATL and community dancers — in process.
At a recent rehearsal, Staibdance’s Emma Lalor explodes and subsequently melts atop Emerson Concert Halls’ risers. Anchored at center stage, ImmerseATL’s Simone Stevens stoically commands the space. Hillmer deftly molds Stevens’ elbows with her fingertips, plucking out some intuitive motivation she’s seeking behind the stillness. Off to the side, Staib shapes a trio that dangles Staibdance’s Devon Joslin in a back-bending cambré. Her upper body extends briefly into the audience before returning to vertical and propelling all three dancers upstage.
Out of this harmonious discord, the company marches dominantly in unison, pairing with the score’s forceful and persistent tumbling. They gather together in a moment of breath upstage left, their eyes raised to the dramatic peak of the concert hall’s 14-ton Werner Wortsman Memorial Organ. Staib muses that as a choreographer, he sees a “beauty and simplicity” in allowing the dancers’ “vibrant bodies” to resonate against the organ’s panoramic pipework and manufactured architecture.
Hillmer — a ballet mistress at Atlanta Ballet in addition to founding ImmerseATL — also guides the ensemble. She encourages the dancers to feel tension between each choice they make, to expel vigor out the back.
Together, they’re excavating a century of sacrifice and finding their own future-facing dynamism with movement that Staib describes as a throttled engine. Split apart, Staibdance artists cough out accumulated frescos then shatter into a supple latticework of limbs and partnered levering. They hover inside this complex machine they’ve built as it hums, churns. The dancers of ImmerseATL linger in sustained vibrations downstage, their diagonal line resisting gravity until all but one gives in. As the group unites together once more, they wash across the space, suspending and supporting one another in acts of risk and vulnerability that color the idea of sacrifice in wholly different terms.
On Saturday, no one person will experience the same performance, neither aurally nor visually. Those seated near the aisles will be immersed in heat and breath as dancers line up the aisle in close proximity. Staib and Hillmer plan to transform the concert hall into a vibrant playground, with careful attention given to depth and layering that depends wholly on vantage points and aims to weave the audience into the movement.
At one climatic moment, the entire company will surround the audience in the round before ascending to the stage. Their departure will feed off a precarious undercurrent in the music, impalpably mirrored in a few couplings’ motions while articulated with silver-tongued ease in others. Some will be carried, legs airborne and ornamental, while many will remain revved of their own volition on two feet, arms unraveling filigree. Though methodically choreographed, there is an openness that seems to consider how live music may charge and ultimately transform the dancers and the space.
“When dancers are with live music, their pores respond differently,” says Hillmer. “Their senses are heightened.”
In spite of embedded solos, duets and trios, there’s no singled out sacrifice in Staib and Hillmer’s vision. Instead, their dystopian vision is realized as a collective effort. The cooperative environment within the cast is clear in rehearsal as professional mentorship occurs organically without conflict.
“There is that hungry, youthful drive and eagerness that my group brings to the mix,” says Hillmer. “I’m feeding them as much as possible into the professional world, and it’s satisfying to be able to unleash them in this process with Staib as a guide in his vision.”
Lending weight to the performance is the presence of Spano on piano. This will mark his second recent collaboration with an Atlanta dance troupe.
“I hope that the audience finds the humanity inside the score,” says Staib. “If their physical response allows them to hear the music differently, that would be incredible.”