Ruth Andrien working with dance students
From Taylor's 1980 Le Sacre (Ruth Andrien with Christopher GillisDance Students Working on 'Le Sacre'Dance Students

Restaging Paul Taylor's
'Le Sacre'

Zunch.

That’s a special word, coined by choreographer and dance legend Paul Taylor, to describe that elusive something he looks for in his dancers. “Zunch,” he has said, “is the magic that stays with the watchers after we are done. Zunch is opening up. Turning the burner on. Going beyond.”

And zunch is probably what he saw when he invited Ruth Andrien, in Ann Arbor this fall to restage one of Taylor’s works on our dance students, to join the Paul Taylor Dance Company back in 1974. Andrien was one of 350 who auditioned that day.

“He kept looking at me,” she remembers. When the audition was over and the moment of truth had arrived, Taylor’s gaze moved around the final six aspirants, making eye contact with everyone but her. Finally, he said, “Only one person can come on tour with us.” Then, looking at Andrien, “and Ruthie, you’re it.”

“I think he thought, ‘This girl is crazy, I have to have her,’” says Andrien, one of ten kids from a family in Pennsylvania who supported herself washing windows in high rises with a squeegee—“that’s how I got so strong”—and working a piano bar dressed in a cat costume before joining the company. And it was Andrien who was cast in the role of The Girl in Taylor’s 1980 staging of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), the very dance that she is restaging on the students here.

“Paul warned me, ‘this is going to be too hard,’” she recalls. At the end of Taylor’s Le Sacre there’s an incredibly demanding 4-minute solo for the Chosen Maiden, a dance sacre in which she figuratively dances herself to death.

Taylor, who danced with Martha Graham before forming his own company in 1954, is one of the most acclaimed choreographers in America. Still as prolific as ever at the age of 79, he has conceived some of the most memorable pieces in the history of dance, from beautiful lyrical works to works that shock and baffle.

“Taylor is allergic to convention,” Andrien says. “He likes to throw people off. But he also likes to let them participate in what they’re seeing.”

The very first Le Sacre du Printemps was created in 1913, a collaboration between Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky, set on Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The score was challenging—dissonant, primitive, polyrhythmic—and the choreography was a radical departure from traditional ballet.

The dancers in the Ballets Russes were thrown off by this choreography so contrary to their training. Stravinsky was frustrated with Nijinsky’s limited understanding of the complexities of the score; Nijinsky was insulted by Stravinsky’s impatient, patronizing music tutorials. At the Paris premiere, the audience response was heated. Catcalls started from the opening distorted bassoon solo and things went downhill from there. Fistfights between supporters and opponents spilled out into the aisles. By intermission, the Paris police had been called in.

In 1980, Taylor, a long-time admirer of Nijinsky’s work, created his own Le Sacre—some 30 others had been set by choreographers since the 1913 original— adding the parenthetical “The Rehearsal” to the end of the title. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff called it the first “anti-Sacre,” both eclipsing and shedding new light on all the others that had come before.

“Paul Taylor’s Le Sacre is very much a rite for a dance company,” wrote dance department chair Angela Kane, a Paul Taylor scholar, in Dance Research. “The work ends where all of Taylor’s choreography begins: back in the studio, with his ‘Dance Company’ performing unison pliés and battements to the final chords of Stravinsky’s ‘Sacrificial Dance’.”

Threaded around and through the scenes in rehearsal is a detective story, a Damon Runyon cops and robbers tale. The color palette is neutral, in tones of gray, black, and white. The stage set is spare as well, with minimal props that double up in function. A ladder that serves as a “barre” for the dancers later depicts the “bar” where the gangsters hang out. Instead of using the original orchestral score, Taylor used a reduction for two pianos to reinforce the rehearsal theme. Scrims drop down to intimate shifts in the story line.

Kane has compared Taylor’s Le Sacre to Nijinsky’s L’Apres midi d’un faune, which appeared in 1912, the year before, set to a score by Debussy, in which the dancers move across the stage in profile, a portrayal that brought to mind a Greek vase painting or a bas-relief.

In Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), fingers are cramped, the torso is twisted while the legs face forward, and the position is maintained to create a flat, two-dimensional, frieze-like look. Movements are stylized and mechanical. Lifts are both difficult and sustained.

“The music is intricate, with lots of counterpoint and changes in tempo,” she says. “The physicality is relentless, with an unnatural stylistic consistency. It requires compacted energy, bound movement—movement that goes inward instead of radiating away.”

Julie Tice (BDA ’97), a member of PTDC since 2000, told students in a recent master class on the Taylor style, “Be very clean with the musicality of the movement. The choreography really speaks for itself. It is very clear. There is no need for embellishment.”

Andrien, who was a member of the Taylor Company from 1974 to 1983, is one of the foremost restagers of Taylor’s work, both for universities and dance companies around the world. She recently restaged Le Sacre for the Paris Opera Ballet.

The Taylor Company, which now holds a Paul Taylor Summer intensive at U-M, initially had doubts. But last year, PTDC representatives witnessed our students in Amy Chavasse’s restaging of Laura Dean’s Impact. They were impressed. Later, when it became clear that Andrien wanted to set Le Sacre on a student group and would be available to restage it here, they gave the green light. A grant from the NEA in support of the restaging sealed the deal.

“The students really want to do this,” Andrien says. “With the amount of goodwill and positive energy in the department, we can pull it off.” She has been in Ann Arbor, on and off, for residencies all fall, and in January will return for a final month of intensive rehearsing.

Performances of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) at the power Center dance concert (February 4-7) mark the beginning of a year of celebrating Paul Taylor, who turns 80 in July. Plans are underway to bring Taylor 2, his second company, to A2 for the 2010 U-M summer intensive and for University Musical Society to host a Paul Taylor Dance Company performance in the fall. More activities—colloquia, lectures, guest visitors—are being planned around the themed year..