Alberta Ballet tackles folklore and rebirth with double-bill of Der Wolf and The Rite of Spring

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While Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s score to his ballet The Rite of Spring is now regarded as an avant-garde classic, its reception back in 1913 was less-than-enthusiastic. In fact, it was downright hostile and reportedly spurred a near riot on opening night in Paris.

The reaction was so bad, in fact, that it is an entry on a surprisingly fulsome Wikipedia page called “List of classical music concerts with unruly audience response.”

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The Rite of Spring is part of Alberta Ballet’s season-ending double-bill alongside Der Wolf, a 2021 take on Little Red Riding Hood by choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple that was first performed by Austria’s Oper Graz. The Rite of Spring is no longer controversial, of course, and Stravinsky’s score is arguably one of the major reasons why the piece is revered 111 years after its creation..

“It created lots of different feelings and different approaches,” says Alberta Ballet artistic director Francesco Ventriglia. “But it’s such a masterpiece. Obviously it is still here. it’s probably one of the best score written in the last century. Luckily, some people in art and culture want to be revolutionary and give us masterpieces that can survive through time.”

This is the season finale for Alberta Ballet and was actually programmed by the Ventriglia’s predecessor Christopher Anderson. But Ventriglia, who became artistic director in December, is familiar with the piece having participated in more than 50 performances of it when he was a young dancer in Milano. Alberta Ballet will be basing their version on Nicolo Fonte’s 2014 choreography, a newish adaptation that nevertheless maintains the dark, surreal power of the original.

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While Der Wolf may be equally dark — Alberta Ballet warns audiences of the double-bill’s adult themes and theatrical depictions of abuse, violence and death — the two productions are very different. The Rite of Spring tells an abstract tale of re-birth but has much less of a storytelling base than Der Wolf.

“For Nicolo Fonte, the choreographer, when I spoke to him he said ‘My driving force was really was the music, I didn’t want to go into the narrative much I really wanted to use the score and create this vocabulary of movement to express the different colours of the score,’:  Ventriglia says. “I have to say when I went into the studio, it’s very powerful. The ballet is very physical, there’s this very acrobatic lift with the girls. The dancers are flying around. It’s really powerful.”

Der Wolf, on the other hand, has Runacre-Temple reimagining the Little Red Riding Hood tale by giving it three different endings and a contemporary feel.

“It’s more theatrical,” he says. “It’s very strong, contemporary-movement based but there is a theatrical approach. The fun thing is basically she tells us the Little Red Riding Hood story three times with three different finales. It’s about ‘what if?’ What if the wolf does this? What if Little Red Riding Hood would react in this way? You see the story start and finish three times with a different finale.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Der Wolf reimagines Little Red Riding Hood, making her less of a victim.

“I think it’s very interesting to go back into fairy tales and see how we can read it again and understand a different side of the story,” he says. ” I think Morgan, with this idea to repeat the story three times with a different end, empowers Little Red Riding Hood because every time the story starts again Little Red Riding Hood is older and so she is starting to be a woman, she is starting to be a woman and starting to make her own decisions. I love the growth of the character and the empowerment of the character. She is not just a little girl running around the forest.”

The production of Der Wolf and The Rite of Spring not only ends a chapter in Alberta Ballet — Ventriglia is expected to announce the lineup for his inaugural season for the company next week — it will also be the final bow for no less than seven dancers in Alberta Ballet. Twin sisters Jennifer and Alexandra Gibson announced last month that it would be their final show after 15 years with the company.  Principal dancer Heather Dornian; senior corp de ballet dancers Eli Barnes, Melissa Eguchi and Kira Anderson; and corp de ballet dancer Mya Kresnyak will also retire after performing in Der Wolf and the Rite of Spring.

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There will be an international audition tour for new members of Alberta Ballet, although auditions will begin in Calgary. Forty-eight hours after Alberta Ballet announced the auditions, there were 350 applications. Auditions will also be held in Milano, London and New York, he says.

While it’s bittersweet and even “painful” to see seasoned dancers leave Alberta Ballet, Ventriglia says he understands the desire in artists to do something different with their lives. Ballet, he says, is all-encompassing.

“This is a very fragile art form that requires every single piece of you from the age of 7 or 8 and for your entire life,” he says. “You give this art form everything: You give it your childhood, you give it your (teen years), you give it every single phase of your life. You are in the studio working hard. So I totally understand if you arrive at a certain point in your life and you want a different chapter, you want a change. So I’m here to support them and I’m here to make sure that their final bow is special. I’ll make sure they are honoured and thanked as they deserve and every artist deserves.”

Der Wolf and the Rite of Spring will be performed in Calgary’s Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium from May 2 to 4 and Edmonton’s Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium from May 10 to 11.

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