‘The Rite of Spring & Other Works’ a refreshing, outdoor take on the traditional

If I could say one positive outcome of the pandemic, it would be the influx in outdoor performances—ballet in particular. I’ve seen more ballets on lawns and in parking lots this past year than I’ve seen in my entire dance tenure, and for that, we have the pandemic to thank. Outdoor ballets are refreshing because they feel more accessible, communal, affordable, and a bit more relaxed in terms of the atmosphere. Chicago Repertory Ballet’s “Rite of Spring & Other Works,” choreographed by esteemed artistic director Wade Schaaf, plus new works by Taylor Mitchell and Mariana Oliveira at Montrose Harbor on Sunday, July 25, continued with the open-air performance movement. With a setting sun serving as lighting designer and backdrop, the nearly two-hour performance was packed with wit, intensity, rigor and a soundtrack that encouraged me to pull out my Shazam on more than one occasion.

Although many details etched themselves in my memory—from confetti red hearts, to pink bows and delicate flicks in the wrists—a few larger elements piqued my curiosity. For instance, I saw the cycle of death in the opening number, “Immortal Beloved,” by Oliveira, with all 10 dancers beginning in black attire. The uniformity was actually quite refreshing, as oftentimes I’m so used to seeing ballet in a more rogue form. I adored the French twists worn in the women’s hair and the dramatic orchestral music by Ludwig von Beethoven. It felt like traditional ballet with its lifts, lines and jetes, but the all-black attire gave it the extra punch that foreshadowed something more intriguing was to follow. Miriam-Rose LeDuc and Mickey Erickson performed an impressive duet as LeDuc gave us something visually upbeat with her performance in an all-white dress to an off-kilter piano soundtrack. The black and peek of white served as a subtle reminder that birth tends to always follow death.

Also in my memory is the “The Dying Swan,” a piece performed by soloist Princess Reid, originally choreographed by Michel Fokine and adapted by Schaaf. This solo felt like a nod to the movie “Black Swan” as Reid bouréed on pointe, giving off a femme fatale energy and a physique that commanded everyone’s attention. It was an edgy performance for the gods, almost entirely on pointe in a short, black, avant-garde tutu. 

Act two deviated from the all-black attire but continued with the femme fatale and circle of life themes in “The Rite of Spring.” This piece first debuted in 1913 in Paris, France and has been performed by many notable companies since. In 2013, it was reimagined on the Chicago Repertory Ballet and this weekend was re-mounted by Schaaf to fit the company members active today.

Many elements of “The Rite” felt attractive. I gravitated to the geometric partnering and nude-colored, meshy attire envisioned by costume designer Nathan Rohrer. There were also these organic swings and drags to a backdrop of woodwind instruments that at times felt like a suspense scene in your favorite Disney movie. Lovely, legato circle formations melted and expanded, accentuating tactile floor work and the contrast between upright red bamboo sticks down stage and the grounded dancers upstage. Also, I loved the intensity and battle between dancers Miriam-Rose LeDuc and Carley Klebba. LeDuc appeared to be a chieftess, dominating her territory, and Klebba appeared to be the sacrificial lamb, dancing until her body exhausted all the possibilities— like an episode of “Game of Thrones.” Eventually, Klebba’s body gave out and was elevated by the ensemble on bamboo sticks, which felt like Jesus on a cross in the end.

"The Rite of Spring" was a full-on, narrative performance that definitely took work on your part as an active audience member. After experiencing the entire ballet, I felt intrigued to see more ballets this summer, whether they are online or on the street. I love how “The Rite of Spring” stretched my imagination and brought up feelings and sounds I haven’t experienced since I was a child. For me, that is the magic and wonder of ballet; what I and the world are learning is that the indoor theatre does not serve as its only home.