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A Revolutionary Spring

Agnieszka Laska Dancers perform The Rite of Spring, Chris Leck © 2013
Agnieszka Laska Dancers perform The Rite of Spring, Chris Leck © 2013

Not many people associate classical music or ballet with scandal, but that’s exactly what The Rite of Spring was on an early summer evening in Paris 101 years ago — a white-hot scandal. A near-riot shook the Théatre des Champs-Elysées as the discordant sounds of Igor Stravinsky’s Spring, accompanied by Vaslav Nijinsky’s jarring choreography, filled the hall. American novelist Gertrude Stein said of the fateful performance, “No sooner did the music begin and the dancing than [the audience] began to hiss.”

Over a century later, Eugene Symphony Executive Director Scott Freck calls Spring a “rite of passage” for classical musicians, as does Portland-based choreographer Agnieszka Laska for dancers. “It’s a milestone for any choreographer to measure up to this music,” Laska says. 

Both Freck and Laska are leading separate performances of Spring this season. The Eugene Symphony, joined by the award-winning Japanese violinist Fumiaki Miura, will perform the 35-minute piece, followed by Debussy’s “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 at 8 pm Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Hult. Laska brings her Portland-based modern dance company, Agnieszka Laska Dancers, preceded by The Chopin Project, to The Majestic Theatre in Corvallis March 15.

“To me it still sounds incredibly fresh, powerful and relevant,” Freck tells me over a cup of coffee at Perugino. “Stravinsky fundamentally changed the way we express the nature of human expression.” The composer eschewed the traditional compositional forms lingering from the 19th-century a la Beethoven and Wagner, Freck explains, and embraced a dissonance, tonality and freedom of rhythm that had never been heard before.

Freck calls Spring “a mountain to climb” for musicians, and there will be 95 musicians on stage at the Hult. “It’s the biggest orchestra we’re putting on stage this year by far,” he says. The concert begins with a single bassoon, and it’s a haunting one at that. Spring is about sacrifice after all. The piece’s subtitle is “Pictures of Pagan Russia”; the story unfolds that during a pagan ritual, a young woman is chosen to appease the gods of spring and dances herself to death.

“It’s so brutal, so vulgar,” Laska says of Nijinsky’s choreography, which inspired her own. “He completely stripped choreography of beauty. It was very rough, it was very down to earth, it was against the canon of beauty that was popular 100 years ago.” 

Laska describes the choreography as challenging because of the abrupt changes in rhythm, but the dance company already has experience with the ballet. ALD performed Spring with the Chicago Philharmonic last September. Laska, like Nijinsky, is Polish, and the Polish Theater in Krakow has also invited the company to perform Spring later this year.

This concert is not just for classical music buffs, Freck says, it’s for anyone who cares about music.

“If you love rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “you must come hear this live.” 

The Eugene Symphony presents The Rite of Spring 8pm Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Hult; $35-$61. Agnieszka Laska Dancers present The Rite of Spring 7:30pm Saturday, March 15, at the Majestic Theatre, Corvallis; $15-$20.