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Rite Turn 

Ballet Preljocaj makes a feminist detour with 'The Rite of Spring.'

It was one of the most notorious debuts in the history of dance--or classical music. The Rite of Spring, a collaboration between a pair of Russians, composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, so stunned its Parisian audience when it debuted on May 29, 1913, that people began rioting in the aisles. Not only did they hate Stravinsky's dissonant music, they loathed his story. Performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the ballet recounted a shocking tribal tale of a young girl who dances herself to death, sacrificed, Stravinsky wrote, "to propitiate the god of spring."

Though Ballets Russes presented it only a few more times, choreographers have revisited the scandalous work again and again. Léonide Massine re-staged it in 1920, Martha Graham danced it in 1930, and the French choreographer Maurice Béjart made it his own it in 1959.

Last year the Ballet Preljocaj, an experimental French company, gave a Berlin premiere to a new version whose shock value matches the original's. Choreographed by the Albanian-born Angelin Preljocaj, the new Rite features nudity, a simulated rape and what one enthusiastic critic characterized as "dance as eroticism." Tucson audiences will get a rare chance to catch up with the European avant-garde when the troupe brings the piece to Centennial Hall Monday night as part of a two-month North American tour. Also on the program is "Helicopkter," a frantic Preljocaj work that mixes music, dance and helicopter videos.

European critics raved over the feminism of the 21st-century Rite last year, with one renaming it The Rite of Woman.

"The term 'feminist' is too PC," objected Nadine Comminges, a former Ballet Preljocaj dancer who debuted the role of the female Chosen One. Still, Preljocaj "created the piece to show women's strength compared to men, to beautify women," she said.

After 10 years dancing with the 22-member company, Comminges this year is artistic assistant and rehearsal director. Speaking through an interpreter from her hotel room in Irvine, Calif., where the company was to perform last weekend, Comminges said that Preljocaj remained faithful to the broad story line of the original, known in French as Le Sacre du Printemps. Twelve dancers represent "a tribe, or clan ... reunited on stage to celebrate the arrival of spring."

But the young virgin endures "a simulated scene of rape" in the Preljocaj piece, and "the Chosen One does not die. She is culled from the group but not physically sacrificed. There is no blood-letting. There's a counterplay between tenderness and violence, trying to confront desire, and a bit of fear."

The wild music of Stravinsky, Commnges added, is a perfect match, "quite strong and violent, then melodic and romantic." The Berlin audience last year had the advantage of hearing the music played by the Berlin Philharmonic, but Tucsonans will have to make do with a recording.

If Preljocaj has updated the story, he has also changed the movement to make it "very now, not '60s or '70s or '80s. It's very refreshing. ... Ballet is the starting-off point. It's transformed into modern, very rhythmic, very ground-based."

A New Yorker critic who saw the 40-minute work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October praised the "plain linear moves of the twelve lush dancers," which "begin to feel like deliberate preparations for an ineluctable rite ... the dance gathers heat and meets the challenge of the huge, ominous music."

The evening's opener, the 2001 "Helikopter," was called "windswept" by the New Yorker. A 35-minute multimedia extravaganza for six dancers, it first took shape in the nighttime imagination of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In a dream, "I saw and heard the musicians in the quartet, playing during flight in four helicopters," Stockhausen has written. When Preljocaj first heard the score, "he didn't see at all any way of putting movement to this music," Comminges said. "Then he thought it would be a challenge to choreograph it."

Preljocaj then enlisted videographer Holger Förterer, whose dissonant visuals echo the wild dance and music. (The Arditti Quartet performs the music on tape.)

"It begins with the image of the helicopter propeller," Comminges said. "That's the leitmotif for the whole piece. The video is a whirlwind that constantly moves with the dancers." And inspired by the circle traced in the air by the helicopter propellers, Preljocaj has his six dancers moving in "concentric circles in and out. [Everything is] based on circular round movement."

Comminges said that dance is alive and well and living in France, in part because "we're very fortunate to have a government that supports the arts. It allows people to do what they love to do."

Originally located outside Paris, the company has been based since 1996 in Aix-in-Provence in the south of France, in the landscape whose lineaments were so lovingly painted by Paul Cézanne. The government, in a move to spread the arts around the country, asked the troupe to move to Aix, where it is now one of 17 government-designated National Choreographic Centers. And, Comminges added, it's "supported by the federal, regional and municipal government.

"What's lovely in France is there's lots of funding and many festivals and contests to encourage talent. It gives all choreographers that much more of a livelihood."

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