by John Stoehr
Without a doubt, the most anticipated dance performance of this year's Spoleto Festival is Heddy Maalem's reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring, the iconic ballet set to the music of Igor Stravinsky. The choreography was so primal that it sent throngs of genteel Parisians of La Belle Époque into the streets to riot in protest of its savage portrayal of European paganism.
Audiences came to see France's famed Ballets Russes and were more inclined to enjoy gently posed formations of Russian and French ballet. Instead, they met with a strident choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky that was based on the ancient rite of a young maiden dancing herself to death. So the audience rioted (at least for a quick minute; the story have become somewhat apocryphal over time, because in fact Paris and all of Europe came to love Rite of Spring and have been loving it since).
Here's a basic difference: Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was European; Heddy Maalem's dance troupe is African. To be specific, from various countries in West Africa, where most of the slave trade in the Americas originated. This difference comes with all the symbolic overtones that our post-colonial imaginations can muster. Another thing: that slave trade had a terminus in Charleston, among other cities on the East and Gulf coasts, and Maalem's company performs here, a wheel come full circle.
Maalem writes of Rite of Spring:
Our dawn finds us enmeshed in the process of recognizing the forces knotting our bodies, we are dancing. To the same chord, united in complete dis-harmony to celebrate this Sacre, dancing what is dead, what lives again and will die. Show the ritual, that which mixes death with life, bones and ash. To say again what a man does to celebrate the gift of such a terrible joy. To breathe this rhythm for the first and last time, when the veil drops before our eyes.
And Africa – a whole continent contained in the space which separates the day as it ends, from the beginning of the next one, daybreak. The end and the beginning of the world, a world on its knees when Stravinsky saw Red suns coming up in the East. A continent from which springs – at the same time as a promise – the thickening anguish of spring. An earth withstanding the great leap forward of the universe, the force of Tomorrow ever present.