The Louisville Ballet took a bold step in the late ‘70s when it had Mikhail Baryshnikov perform with the company. Those performances helped make it one of the most renowned regional companies in the dance world and beyond. And this weekend the company looks to strengthen its footing with the premiere of a new ballet. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.
The Louisville Ballet has set its sights high in recent years. It’s had choreographers come to town and create new works, including up-and-comer Adam Hougland. He studied at Julliard and, since 2004, has created five ballets for the company.
This week, Hougland has been rehearsing his latest work with Louisville Ballet.
“Each step has to be, like, really sharp. Like if you’ve got, like, magnates on the floor,” he tells some of the dancers rehearsing in the company’s studios.
After rehearsal, Hougland tells me he’s a bit nervous about this ballet, for several reasons. Putting first things first, it stars Wendy Whelan, a New York City Ballet principal dancer and one of the world’s most renowned ballerinas.
Hougland and Whelan tell me this collaboration came up two years ago when one day in New York City they happened to be in a dance class together.
“So, we have a mutual friend who kind of introduced us,” Hougland says.
“He was taking the class, too,” Whelan chimes in.
Whelan is a Louisville native who moved to New York when she was 15. And she recognized Hougland from photos she’d seen in Louisville publications her family had sent her. Whelan says they talked as they walked to her place.
“And, on my front step,” she says, “I was like, ‘See you. It was really nice to meet you. And, hey, if you ever want to work together, I would love it.’ And he was like…”
“Oh, twist my arm. Alright,” he says, and they both laugh.
After further conversations, the two decided they wanted to create a piece to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and premiere it with the Louisville Ballet. Artistic director Bruce Simpson remembers when he first heard the idea.
And Adam phoned me and said, “You know, I’ve this great idea for a ballet. I’m very excited.” And when he said, “Rite of Spring,” my actual first natural reaction was to take a deep breath and go — “OK. Let’s talk about this.”
Simpson knew that a new ballet using this iconic music — with Whelan dancing in the main role — could boost the company’s standing in the dance world. He and Hougland discussed how it could be original, especially since many famous choreographers had used it since it provoked scandal in Paris in 1913.
That year, the music premiered with a ballet by legendary choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Audiences were shocked upon hearing the music’s harsh and multiple rhythms. And they rioted when they saw the pagan-like dance depicting the brutal sacrifice of a girl to appease the god of Spring.
What Hougland has created with Whelan is a dark story about a woman pulled by a cast of soulless creatures against a landscape devoid of life or greenery. Whelan describes this woman.
“I don’t feel like she sees the people,” Whelan says. “She more feels the energy of the people. She knows there’s some kind of doom. And she’s not sure why it’s overpowering her.”
Dance critic and historian Lynn Garafola says a choreographer setting a piece to “The Rite of Spring” can be seen as a kind of rite of passage.
“A lot of choreographers use it in some measure to define themselves as a member of a modern dance establishment,” Garafola says.
One of the challenges is casting someone who can match the demands of the music and the emotional intensity of the main character. Garafola says Hougland has that with Whelan.
“She’s a strong character and a strong personality, and I think that’s what ‘The Rite of Spring’ needs.”
Other critics agree, and many are coming to see this new work. One is Dance Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Wendy Perron.
“Adam’s an emerging choreographer. Wendy’s a master. I would go anywhere to see her dance. And to see her dance in a new role — I mean, this is incredible,” Perron says.
This weekend, audiences will decide if they agree.