Rite of Passage—Rite of Spring

Glen Tetley’s ballet comes to Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Published in the June/July 2005 issue.

Batkhurel Bold, one of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s principal dancers, doubles over, his face twisted in pain.  

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says, gasping for breath.  “I think I’m going to faint.”

“Ah!—that’s what Baryshnikov told me,” replies legendary choreographer Glen Tetley. “He was able to perform the role of The Chosen One, and you will be too.  Remember, you must breathe. Inhale and exhale completely with each step, and then push through to the end.”

They are rehearsing Tetley’s Rite of Spring, set to Igor Stravinsky’s masterful score. It was presented last February during Francia Russell and Kent Stowell’s farewell season as co-artistic directors. For several PNB dancers, it was much more than just another new ballet; it was a test of stamina, willpower and skill. With Glen Tetley and his staging assistant, Bronwen Curry, on hand for the première, the dancers pushed themselves to the edge of their ability until, as Tetley puts it, “the whole thing began to vibrate and throb.” For 40 solid minutes, the stage was transformed into a world of primal energy. 

Tetley first tackled Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1974 for Munich’s Bavarian State Opera Ballet—and it didn’t come easy.

“At the time, I thought to myself, how am I going to begin? How am I going to make it to the end?” he says. “I was terrified the day I had to face the dancers and step over the threshold into the studio. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff. I felt like I was going to pass out. But when I got into it, it had its own momentum. There are some scores that kinesthetically move me. Rite of Spring is one of those—it’s muscle music. I started choreographing in the winter, and the day I completed the ballet, it was spring.”

Tetley was not interested in reconstructing Vaslav Nijinksy’s original version that caused a riot at its Paris première in 1913, presumably offending the audience with its glorification of primitivism and use of nonclassical dance movements, such as shuffling and stomping with turned-in feet and angular arms. Instead, he wanted to find a new meaning and physical language for one of the 20th century’s seminal scores. He turned his focus to the recurring cycle of spring, ”the curve between life and death where the earth dies and is reborn.” 

Drawing on a passage from Joseph Campbell’s book A Hero with a Thousand Faces, about the universal worship of a springtime god, Tetley wanted to portray an ancient pagan culture and its use of ritual sacrifice to heal the earth. In the myth, one member of the group, The Chosen One, is selected to be ritually sacrificed and mourned before being resurrected.

“There is so much going on in the score, and then it ends very abruptly,” Tetley says.  “I didn’t know how to end the ballet, until I remembered a line I had once read in a poem: ‘Man is really a monkey who wants to fly.’” The line gave him the idea to have The Chosen One fly (lifted by a rig) and hover above the ground, his arms outstretched as if on a crucifix.  The stage goes black just as the music ends, bringing the ballet to a dramatic climax.           

Tetley’s Rite of Spring has not changed since he choreographed it more than 30 years ago. Nor has Nadine Baylis’ forest-like scenery, moody lighting characterized by soft mottling on the stage floor, and flesh-colored costumes decorated with leopard spots and leaves.

Bronwen Curry, who first notated the ballet two years after its première, traveled to Seattle in early January to work with the dancers at PNB. “This is a difficult challenge,” says Curry, “but these are highly disciplined dancers. Rite of Spring is one of those ballets that when you first begin learning it, you think you’re never going to make it. But over the last couple of weeks I’m seeing the adrenaline kick in and something is coming from deep inside these dancers to push them forward. They are gaining a new perspective in their dancing. I see it in their faces, but the process is painful,” she added.       

Tetley arrived a week before the opening to help Curry with the fine-tuning.

“When the dancers get over what they think is physically impossible, they will begin to enjoy it,” he says confidently. He insists that only a well-trained ballet company has the technical capability to perform his Rite of Spring, with its demands of double saut de basques, full-split jetés and highly advanced partnering. At the same time, he recognizes that classically trained dancers have a hard time with the basic techniques of contemporary dance that are central to this ballet. To succeed, he tells the dancers they have to understand how to fold the body into itself, articulate the spine and feel gravity, instead of always escaping it.

“This is not a vertical ballet,” he instructs after the dress rehearsal. “It’s sensuous. It’s earthy. It’s curvilinear. The body does the movement from deep inside—contraction, release. Look where the movement comes from, and that’s where you’ll find its emotion. Use your spine, which is like a spring, and be more physical. Ask yourself, ‘What am I saying? What does all this mean?’ And don’t hold back.”

Tetley’s unique approach reflects his own background in classical and contemporary dance in New York City, where in the early 1940s, ballet was planting its American roots and modern dance was taking off. A chance audition with Jerome Robbins in 1944 landed him his first professional role in the Broadway show On the Town.  At 19, he took up ballet with several of the Russian émigré teachers brought to the School of American Ballet by George Balanchine, including Anatoly Obukhov, Muriel Stuart and Felia Dubrovska. At the same time, he trained secretly with America’s great modern dance pioneers: Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and José Limón. 

“No one knew that I was studying with anyone else,” recalls Tetley. “Back in those days, everyone was closed off from one another. Because I came to dance late, I saw no reason to accept barriers. I wanted to go to the essence of these techniques and saw real connections between them. I wanted to be a really good dancer, the kind of dancer that every choreographer would want to have.” He eventually performed in the companies of Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, Jerome Robbins and with American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet in the 1950s, before making a name for himself as a choreographer in 1962 with Pierrot Lunaire. During the next three decades, he choreographed more than 70 ballets and was artistic director of Netherlands Dance Theater and Stuttgart Ballet, also working closely with the Royal Danish Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, National Ballet of Norway, Paris Opéra Ballet and others.

For dancers, Tetley’s fusion of ballet and modern dance can be painful and at times even confusing. “His ballets are so hard,” says Jonathan Poretta, who danced the role of The Chosen One on opening night. “This is like taking a crash course in Graham. I think Glen likes to push the dancers on every level—physically, mentally and emotionally. But after you’ve performed one of his works, you feel very accomplished, like you’ve grown as an artist. My dancing feels changed now, as if I’ve added a whole new awareness to my movement.”

Patricia Barker, principal with the company since 1986, says Tetley “not only inspires you with his brilliant choreography, he makes you feel valued and respected as he guides you. Rather than say, ‘You’re doing this all wrong,’ he’ll say, ‘Why don’t we try it this way?’ When I complained to him that my role as Earth Mother was too hard, he said, ‘Well, yes Patricia, it’s hard to move the earth.’ After that, I understood what I needed to do.”

At 79, Tetley says he’s not sure if he’ll choreograph any new works. “I don’t have the physical strength or movement freedom that I did when I was younger,” he says. “And I don’t want to create cerebral works. The way I speak is through my physical movement. It has to come through me. I never wanted to be one of those who choreographed sitting in a chair. I always think you see the chair in the choreography.”