Sunday, 1 May 2011

Stravinsky in 3D

A novel works outing experience  recently for members of the Xorg Collective to The Royal Festival Hall for a performance by The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Iland Volkov, of Igor Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring', with dancer Julia Mach.
Cognoscenti will be aware that 'The Rite of Spring' was originally written as a ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, a Polish-Ukrainian who grew up in Russia and trained at the Imperial Ballet. Nijinsky hitched up with producer Sergei Dhiagelev, with whose company The Ballets Russe he travelled to Paris, whence occurred the first performance of 'The Rite of Spring' in collaboration with Mr Stravinsky in 1913. Apparently Igor and Vaslav did not get along too well; Vaslav thought Igor was a patronising old grump and Igor thought Vaslav was a musical dunce. Be that as it may, Nijinsky's choreography broke down barriers as he dreamed up modern dance to complement Stravinsky's modern music. However, it seems he went a little too far and mimed autoerotic behaviour at some point; in 1913 this was a bit challenging for your average ballet audience and a riot broke out in the theatre. But in the long run, the controversy helped publicise Stravinsky's music, and 'The Rite of Spring' in particular. It has subsequently been performed more as a piece of music on its own merit rather than  necessarily as a ballet.
Any road up, with the recent development of 3D digital technology this chap called  Klaus Obermaier has devised a new way of making the piece visual. This involves a lone dancer being projected live in 3D onto a huge screen above the orchestra, with added digital effects. The whole thing is choreographed; the dancer's movements are coordinated with the music and the computer operator tweaks the images accordingly, with the result that the audience sees , with the aid of 3D glasses, some weird and groovy stuff floating about above and in front  of the stage.
Although the audio-visual concept of the performance is quite novel, the choreography itself was not especially challenging or innovative nor likely to cause a riot. But we got some quirky moments and elements of surrealism along with stretches of what were essentially pretty psychedelic far-out effects. I can't say that the visuals were representational of 'The Rite of Spring' as Nijinsky's ballet reportedly was, being concerned primarily with pagan fertility rites, but it looked good nonetheless and it will be worthwhile trying further experiments in this genre. Obermaier went mostly for the abstract rather than the literal.
The technical set-up required that a blacked out platform was needed for the dancer. This was erected on the right of the stage, taking up the space usually occupied by the basses who were consequently relocated to the left, squashed in behind the first violins. Other sections of the orchestra were likewise relocated and squeezed in, with the result that we didn't get the full dynamics of the symphony orchestra.  The sound came across as two-dimensional as a result - focused within the plane of the stage rather than leaping out  at us.  Future performances should be given somewhere with a bigger stage! However, this inconvenience did not deter the orchestra and conductor from giving the music a fair old seeing to and their performance was pretty darn good.
Prior to the 3D business, the orchestra played two supporting pieces; 'Tuning Up' by Edgard Varese, and 'Lontano' by Gyorgy Ligeti. These were performed wonderfully. Conductor and orchestra played the Varese piece with the right amount of jollity and slyness appropriate for Varese's take on one of classical music's rituals, and with the delicacy and concentration needed for the ethereal Ligeti. Full marks to them, but I'm deducting points for the noisy air conditioning in the Festival Hall which intruded, particularly during 'Lontano'. A bonus point for not charging extra for the 3D glasses though.

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