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An Early Spring

By Betsy Goolian

Students during a rehearsal for 'Le Sacredu Printemps' with the University Dance Company.

U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance


That’s a special word, coined by choreographer and dance legend Paul Taylor, to describe that elusive “something” he looks for in his dancers. “Zunch,” he has said, “is the magic that stays with the watchers after we are done. Zunch is opening up. Turning the burner on. Going beyond.”

And zunch is probably what he saw when he invited Ruth Andrien (photo below) to Ann Arbor this fall to restage one of his works, Le Sacredu Printemps (The Rehearsal), with the University Dance Company. Performances are Feb. 4-7. The restaging is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ruth Andrien

Ruth Andrien

“He kept looking at me,” Andrien remembers, who joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1974. When the audition was over and the moment of truth had arrived, his gaze moved around the final six aspirants (among 350 dancers), making eye contact with everyone but Andrien. Finally, he said: “Only one person can come on tour with us.” At the last second, his eyes locked with Andrien’s and the pronouncement was made:  “And Ruthie, you’re it.”

“I think he thought, ‘This girl is crazy, I have to have her,’” says Andrien, who was cast in the role of The Girl in Taylor’s 1980 staging of Le Sacre du Printemps, the very dance that she is restaging on the students here.

Ruth Andrien during a rehearsal for 'Le Sacredu Printemps' with the University Dance Company

Ruth Andrien during a rehearsal for ‘Le Sacredu Printemps’ with the University Dance Company

“Paul warned me, ‘this is going to be too hard,’” she recalls. At the end of Taylor’s Le Sacre there’s an incredibly demanding 4-minute solo for the Chosen Maiden, a dance sacre in which she figuratively dances herself to death.

Taylor, who formed his own company in 1954, after having danced with Merce Cunningham and, subsequently, George Balanchine, and Martha Graham, is one of the most acclaimed choreographers in America. Still as prolific as ever at the age of 79, he has created some of the most memorable pieces in the history of dance, from beautiful lyrical works to works that shock and baffle.

“Taylor is allergic to convention,” Andrien says. “He likes to throw people off, but he also likes to let them participate in what they’re seeing.”

The very first Le Sacre du Printemps was created in 1913, a collaboration between Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky, set on Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The score was challenging—dissonant, primitive, polyrhythmic—and the choreography was a radical departure from traditional ballet, with violent dance steps depicting fertility rites.

The dancers in the Ballets Russes were thrown off by this choreography so contrary to their training. Stravinsky was frustrated with Nijinsky’s limited understanding of the complexities of the score; Nijinsky was insulted by Stravinsky’s impatient, patronizing music tutorials. At the Paris premiere, the audience response was heated. Catcalls started from the opening distorted bassoon solo and things went downhill from there. Fistfights between supporters and opponents spilled out into the aisles. By intermission, the Paris police had been called in.

In 1980, Taylor, a long-time admirer of Nijinsky’s work, created his own Le Sacre, adding the parenthetical “the Rehearsal” to the end of the title. And, true to form, he broke the mold. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called it the first “anti-Sacre,” both eclipsing and shedding new light on all the others that had come before.

“Paul Taylor’s Le Sacre is very much a rite for a dance company,” wrote dance department chair Angela Kane, a Paul Taylor scholar, in Dance Research. “The work ends where all of Taylor’s choreography begins:  back in the studio, with his ‘Dance Company’ performing unison pliés and battements to the final chords of Stravinsky’s ‘Sacrificial Dance’.”

Threaded around and through the scenes in rehearsal, where the story begins, is a detective story, a Damon Runyon cops and robbers tale. The color palette for the costuming is neutral, in tones of gray, black, and white, with jots of red added, sparingly, for emphasis.

The stage set is spare as well, with minimal props that double up in function. A ladder that serves as a “barre” for the dancers later depicts the “bar” where the gangsters and their cronies hang out. Instead of using the original orchestral score, Taylor used a reduction for two pianos to reinforce the rehearsal theme. Scrims drop down to intimate shifts in the story line.

Kane has compared Taylor’s Le Sacre to Nijinsky’s L’Apres midi d’un faune, which appeared in 1912, the year before, set to a score by Debussy, in which the dancers move across the stage in profile, a portrayal that brought to mind a Greek vase painting or a bas-relief.

Students during a rehearsal for 'Le Sacredu Printemps' with the University Dance Company.

Students during a rehearsal for ‘Le Sacredu Printemps’ with the University Dance Company.

In Le Sacre du Printemps (the Rehearsal), fingers are cramped, the torso is twisted while the legs face forward, and the position is maintained to create a flat, two-dimensional, frieze-like look. Movements are stylized, mechanical. Lifts are both difficult and sustained. Andrien considers it one of Taylor’s most challenging works.

“The music is intricate, with lots of counterpoint and changes in tempo,” Andrien says. “The physicality is relentless, with an unnatural stylistic consistency. It requires compacted energy, bound movement—movement that goes inward instead of radiating away.”

Andrien, who was a member of the Taylor Company from 1974 to 1983, is one of the foremost restagers of Taylor’s work, both for universities and dance companies around the world. She restaged Le Sacre for the Paris Opéra Ballet.

In restaging a work, Andrien usually starts at the beginning, but in this instance, she has chosen to tackle one of the most challenging passages first. “The barre dance, with the famous syncopated rhythm”—she chants it out, a driving beat—“is where I will probably start. It’s for three couples and it presents the toughest partnering of the dance.”

The Taylor Company, which now holds a Paul Taylor Summer Intensive at U-M—added to the preëxisting New York and Davis, California locations two years ago—initially had doubts. But last year, representatives from the company witnessed our students in Amy Chavasse’s restaging of Laura Dean’s Impact. They were impressed. Later, when it became clear that Andrien wanted to set Le Sacre on a student group and would be available to restage the work here, they gave the green light.

“The students really want to do this,” Andrien says. “With the amount of goodwill and positive energy in the department, we can pull it off.” She has been in Ann Arbor, on and off, for residencies all fall, and in January will return for a final month of intensive rehearsing.

Performances of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) at the Power Center dance concert (February 4-7) mark the beginning of a year of celebrating Paul Taylor, who turns 80 in July. Planning is underway to bring Taylor 2, his second company, to A2 for the 2010 U-M summer intensive and for University Musical Society to host a Paul Taylor Dance Company performance this fall. More activities—colloquia, lectures, special guest visitors—are being planned around the themed year.