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VPL work explores vitality, sexuality, and aging

‘The Rite of Spring’ challenges assumptions, prejudices with dancers from 60 to 100

GUILFORD—An acclaimed French choreographer is collaborating with members from the elderly population in Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont to create a new look for a classic ballet.

Vermont Performance Lab (VPL) has teamed up with Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA) to bring to New England for a three-week residency Thierry Thie Thieû Niang.

Joining participants aged 60 to 100, Niang will workshop a re-imagining of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that will culminate in performances Wednesday, May 28, at 7 p.m., at The Serkin Center at Marlboro College, and Friday, May 30, at 7 p.m., at The Hub at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, Mass.

A post-performance reception with the artists follows each.

The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps in French) was originally choreographed by the legendary Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Its première at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées on May 29, 1913, caused a sensation — and a near-riot in the audience — over its avant-garde music and choreography.

It is widely regarded as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century and the work that launched classical music’s modern era. Its experiments in tonality, metre, rhythm, stress, and dissonance marked a sharp break from everything that came before.

Sara Coffey writes at the VPL website that “in Niang’s re-imagining of Le Sacre du printemps, participants will explore the history, music, and significance of this 100-year-old work through a series of discussion- and movement-based workshops. Niang’s work with senior citizens inverts the youthful orientation of this iconic work to challenge assumptions and prejudices about vitality, sexuality, and aging.”

Niang says that “people are surprised we are doing Le Sacre with the elderly. But after suggesting many works I could stage with them, they were drawn to this music above all others. Le Sacre is music full of energy and renewal. The title may point to spring, but as one of the participants said, there are all kinds of spring. Spring is not just for the young. She told me, ‘I’m in the spring of the autumn of my life.’”

The Rite of Spring is an exhausting work to perform, Niang says, noting that these dancers must keep going 45 minutes without stop. He also says they’re up to the challenge:

“One was an 82-year-old who needed a cane. After three days, she did not need the cane anymore. She had become so confident in her body that she could do without the extra support.”

Niang has already performed The Rite of Spring more than 47 times internationally, always working with local communities of the elderly. He claims that in each production a very different dance emerges.

“It is people who change the piece,” he says. “I do not consider these productions of Le Sacre just my work, but [rather] a genuine joint effort.”

Before coming to New England, Niang completed a successful workshop and performance of this dance in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he found the population much more multicultural than in New England. That affected how he did the work there, he says.

“But the 11 participants from Massachusetts and the 11 from Vermont in turn bring something special from their backgrounds to our Le Sacre,” he adds.

If Niang’s eagerness to share the credit for his work may seem unusual, that may be because in many ways he is not your standard artist.

Half French, half Vietnamese, he is both a dancer and a choreographer. As a dancer he has worked with such celebrated choreographers as Héla Fattoumi, Eric Lamoureux, Daniel Larrieu, Christine Gérard, Daniel Dobbels, and Odile Duboc. He began to choreograph on his own after returning from a trip to Vietnam as part of his fellowship with the Villa Médicis in 1993.

Although he has been doing traditional dance for more than 20 years, he says, he does not believe dance is only for professional dancers:

“I want to break down barriers. I am not interested in art per se, but [rather in] the intersection of movements, expression, and culture with many different kinds of people.”

He adds that in the past eight years he has developed a “fresh relationship with dance” through collaboration with new groups: from actors and opera singers to autistic children and the elderly.

Niang has worked extensively in theater and opera with world-renowned artists such as innovative stage director Patrice Chéreau and conductor Pierre Boulez, as well as with institutions such as Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and Théâtre de la Ville in Paris.

He also offers courses and choreographic workshops for children and senior citizens. Working frequently in schools, at-risk communities, hospitals, and prisons, he often brings in other collaborators such as writers, musicians, and visual artists.

Describing what he is attempting in his unusual relation to dance, Sara Coffey writes at the VPL website: “Niang’s choreography explores sociopolitical constructions and the various ways we live together through the relationships between individuals and groups, amateurs and professionals, and the narrative and abstract.”

Niang puts it more simply: “My choreography is a process that invites people to make a new community through the joint creation of a work of art.”

This workshop and residency with Thierry Thieû Niang is funded in part by the French-U.S. Exchange in Dance (FUSED), a program involving several organizations: the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States, and the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE).

Lead funding is provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Florence Gould Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Community Foundation, and VPL’s Creation Fund donors.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #256 (Wednesday, May 28, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.

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