Apocalyptic Winter of Discontent

Louisville Ballet dancers in Andrea Schermoly’s The Rite of Spring. Photo by Sam English.

Louisville Ballet – The Rite of Spring
Streaming Digital Performance
April 22 – May 31, 2021

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

A frozen post-apocalyptic world where a seeded band of humans battle a viral plague to survive. That’s the plot of Louisville Ballet resident choreographer Andrea Schermoly’s re-interpretation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.

Part of Louisville Ballet’s all-digital 2020-21 Season of Illumination, the ballet art film to Igor Stravinsky’s original score, is perhaps the most straight-forward of the current wave dance works that I have seen taking aim at the current global pandemic. The 39-minute film created during the pandemic does not mince metaphors or meanings in paralleling the its post-apocalyptic world with ours today. With it Schermoly, who also directed the film, created a worse-case scenario world combining our collective fears of a holocaust created nuclear winter and an extinction-level viral outbreak. And while the look and mood of the film is dramatically dark and ominous, it is also deeply rich with the beauty of Schermoly’s contemporary ballet choreography to Stravinsky’s iconic music.  

Filmed at Louisville Ballet’s Main Street Studios, Schermoly’s set designer brother Joe Schermoly created the ballet’s bleak wintery set using what appears to be millions of white packing peanuts representing fallen snow on the ground and several floor-to-ceiling columns of plastic sheeting that resembled spires of cave ice.

The ballet began with a male dancer costumed in white Tyvek-looking hooded overalls and face mask running through this winterscape carrying a clear canister that glowed green at its center. After laying it in the fake snow, a dozen more of Louisville’s dancers entered the space costumed as he was and began a succession of unison dance movement that, while vastly different from Nijinsky’s 1913 original, had the same tribal feel to it. Schermoly’s frenetic choreography had them bending, jumping, spinning, and kicking up the packing peanut snow while matching the tenor of Stravinsky’s score and creating a palpable tension in the ballet.

Louisville Ballet dancers in Andrea Schermoly’s The Rite of Spring. Photo by Sam English.
Louisville Ballet dancers in Andrea Schermoly’s The Rite of Spring. Photo by Sam English.

The glowing green cannister is passed around among several dancers who seem reluctant to possess it. Does it contain the virus or the vaccine?

Like a flashback, the scene then switched to the dancers seated in the white chairs of a waiting room as others marched in at out of rooms single file to receive a vaccination shot. Returning to the winterscape, the dancers suddenly peeled off their overalls to reveal black undergarments as if perhaps trying to shed the trappings of the virus. In the pile of discarded overalls tribe leader Leigh Anne Albrechta found one with blood on it that signaled a panic in the dancing that ensued.

Predictably, this version of The Rite of Spring would have its “Chosen One” character be someone inflicted with the virus. Dancer Ryo Suzuki, who briefly pulled away his mask to reveal a bloody mouth, was that someone. His ostracization from the tribe was instant and as cold as the snow falling around him. Suzuki began a frantic solo, bending and twisting through movement driven by a fear of isolation and of dying. Those surrounding him then donned black veil headpieces to confirm that fate. The ballet ended with the Chosen One’s fears realized. Left alone to die, Suzuki quietly slumped into the packing peanuts…Spring and its renewal of life a distant hope fading.

Well-crafted, adroitly danced, and cinematically shot, Louisville Ballet’s The Rite of Spring is a winner. It has, for now, vaulted to the head of the line of the best COVID-19 pandemic-inspired ballets produced in the United States.

Louisville Ballet’s The Rite of Spring streams digitally through May 31. Tickets are $35. For more information and tickets visit louisvilleballet.org.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.