Eric Languet and the Rite of Spring (1995)

This profile/interview was originally published in NZ Listener, 14 August 1995.

by Raewyn Whyte

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s upcoming season premieres a new work by choreographer Eric Languet, set to Stravinsky’s famous Rite of Spring. Now 33, and a soloist with the company for the past seven years, Languet has made his mark as a choreographer with considerable promise. His most recent works for the ballet company, World News and Whatever Happened to Eve? were acclaimed respectively for their wit and insouciance, sophistication and beauty. Those who have followed his choreographic development await his Rite of Spring with considerable interest.Born in Compiegne, near Paris, Languet grew up on Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean near to Madagascar. His father was a mathematics teacher with a keen interest in live performance, and he took his son to all kinds of live performances, and encouraged him to participate in the arts. It wasn’t until Eric saw the movie Bolero, starring the leading dancer of Maurice Bejart’s famous Ballets de XXieme Siecle, Jorge Donn, that Languet knew he wanted to be a dancer.

This Bolero has nothing in common with the better known Bo Derek version. It is based loosely on the lives of Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and tells the story of a gloriously talented Russian dancer who defects to the West to escape the straight jacket of Russian classical ballet.

“When I saw Jorge Donn dancing in this movie, I knew I wanted to be a dancer, just like him. I wanted to dance like him, to be just like him. I started taking jazz and modern dance classes once a week, but I couldn’t study ballet. I had no idea how I could make my dream happen.”

Languet trained as a primary school teacher, and aged 21 was working as a barman at Club Mediterranee in the school holidays when he met a teacher from the Conservatoire National de Paris. They talked for three days, about Languet’s desire to be a dancer, about the school’s training programmes, about the kinds of young people they sought to train as ballet dancers.. Later he received the offer of a place at the school, and he leaped at the opportunity.

“It was too good a chance to refuse,” he says, “though I really had no idea what to expect or if I would be able to survive the training. But they were willing to take the risk on me, so I went to Paris. It was a turning point in my life.”

After completing the school’s two year training programme, Languet auditioned for a range of different companies and productions.

“I tried out for all sorts of things, and sent away many letters of inquiry. I didn’t expect to land a job right away, but I got two offers at once. One was for the role of Snoopy in a musical theatre show for young children, the other a one season contract in the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet. I was happy to turn Snoopy down.”

After two seasons with the Paris Opera, Languet danced with a succession of companies in Geneva, Italy, and throughout France. Eighteen months with the Ballet de France under the direction of New Zealand ex-patriate Gray Veredon eventually brought Languet to New Zealand. When Veredon mounted A Servant of Two Masters on the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1988, he persuaded then artistic director, Harry Haythorne, to audition Languet for a soloist contract, and Languet has been in New Zealand ever since.

He felt at home in New Zealand as soon as he arrived here, and he became a New Zealand citizen in 1994.

“I am in love with New Zealand,” Languet says, “with the people, the weather, the land itself. For me, choosing to be in New Zealand is like choosing the family I want to be part of. There are plenty of opportunities there for me to do the things I want to do, so becoming a citizen is part of my commitment to this place, my investment in this country. Continuing to dance and choreograph here is one way I can make my contribution.”

With a cast of twenty and a running time of 35 minutes, Rite of Spring is Languet’s most ambitious work to date, and it has provided him with considerable challenges.

Creating a ballet to Stravinsky’s famous music is a tall order for any choreographer. The music is towering, tempestuous, intensely dramatic, and extraordinarily rhythmically complex. The score has proved a challenge for many of the world’s leading choreographers, from both ballet and modern dance. There are at least forty different versions of the work listed in dance history books, many of them centred around the ritual sacrifice of a young woman, as in the most famous version of all, that of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, first performed in Paris on 29 May 1913.

Jointly created by choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, composer Igor Stravinsky, and ethnographer/designer Nicholas Roerich, Le Sacre du Printemps caused a near-riot in the theatre. The opening night audience was so scandalised by what they saw as an ugly, violent ballet with a brutal score, that they rose to their feet, screaming and booing. There was brawling in the aisles as those who dared to express admiration for the work were punched out by those who hated it. The audience made so much noise that the dancers couldn’t hear the music, and when the audience ignored impresario Diaghilev’s pleading for calm, the police were called to break up the fighting and haul away the troublemakers.

That infamous production showed the annual ritual of a prehistoric Slavic tribe at the advent of Spring. The fertility of the earth in the coming year could only be ensured by the sacrifice of a young woman to satisfy the hunger of the sun god. The ballet showed the selection of the maiden, who became the Chosen One when she stumbled twice in the dance of the maidens. Consequently, she danced herself to death, giving up her life to ensure survival for her community.

Accompanied by a joltingly loud score of jangling discord which pounded at the ears of the audience, the dance was full of angular, crooked movements, bodily contractions, turned-in feet and stamping, jumping, running movements pushing down into the floor. The dancers’ bodies were shrouded in cloth, rather than being arrayed in the more usual flimsy costumes which offered glimpses of their limbs; and the dancers faced inwards to one another, rather than directing all their charms towards the audience. The choreographer said the dance showed the life forces of the stones and the trees, but the audience didn’t seem to understand that. With their senses assaulted by the sights and sounds of the ballet, and their desire for fleshly entertainment unmet, it is small wonder that they protested.

In the Languet version of  Rite of Spring, tribal sacrifice is no longer the theme, and the work is set in the present.

“My version is set in a ballet studio, and it explores what happens when revolution goes wrong, like they always do. ”

“There’s really no story as such, just a situation within a ballet company in which the dancers rebel against the director, and more or less destroy everything so they can build a new company more to their liking. Slowly a new leader emerges, a young woman, until the people in the company realise that she’s taken the place of the director….”

“Though I’ve set this in a ballet company, these people could be almost any other group in society. The work is really about a group of people and their need for a leader, the way they meet that need. And of course it also explores what happens when someone becomes a leader, what does that person do with their power? Is there a way not to become authoritarian?”

Languet’s previous works have also explored political themes and issues, and the ways in which conflict is dealt with between people. Otacenas, The Lord’s Prayer, is set in the former Yugoslavia and explores the way the social division imposed by war affect ordinary people, turning love to hate. What Ever Happened to Eve? considered the consequences for Eve of usurping God’s authority, and the downstream effects of her expulsion from the Garden of Eden. World News wryly commented on the assumed separation of politics and the arts, pointing to the way current events inevitably intrude on performances and the ways in which one kind of performance, such as ballet, can satirically comment on another, such as strip shows.

“We generally expect ballet to be some kind of sweet entertainment,” says Languet, “like musicals and soap operas, something you can sit back and enjoy and not be at all disturbed by. I like sweet entertainment as much as the next person. I watch television, and I enjoy the Rocky Horror Show, the chance to forget your problems and have a laugh. But my own work is about disturbing people enough so they have to think, but not so much they feel they have to walk away from it.”

“Being political is part of being French,” says Languet. “Young French people have a bigger political awareness than young kiwis. Knowing about politics, being identified with the left or the right is a tradition in high school, something that stays with you. I was an anarchist in high school. I also have memories of the 1968 student uprising in Paris. I can remember being six years old and seeing my father on television, throwing bricks at the police from behind the barricades, along with other students. He was doing his mathematics degree at the time. After that, we went to Reunion.”

“Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was one of my father’s favourite pieces of music. It was the theme music for the student uprising in 1968, and they played it all the time. He always liked Bejart’s version of the ballet, too. My father has never seen me dance, and he hasn’t seen any of my ballets either. So he’s coming to New Zealand for this season. He’ll see my Rite of Spring and he’ll see me dance in one of the other works on the programme, probably in Balanchine’s Agon.”

Making a new of Rite of Spring was not Languet’s idea. Rather, he was commissioned to make this work by Ashley Killar, artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

“At first I didn’t want to do it,” Languet says. “I felt it was too much like walking in the footsteps of the great choreographers–Macmillan, Bejart, Nijinsky. But the music grew on me, and Ashley assured me I was free to do whatever I wanted, even though he knows that I make works which are much more dance theatre than ballet. Even though I very much respect the tradition and technique of classical ballet, my work is more theatrical, and involves improvisation, so contemporary dance techniques fulfil my purpose better. ”

“Even so, my version pays homage to Nijinsky’s version, and to the Ballet Russes in some ways. It shows my great respect for French tradition.”

Languet has been collaborating with contemporary dancer/choreographer Claire O’Neill throughout the rehearsal period with the ballet company dancers. They workshop the material together, teach the dancers together. Once the work is set, she rehearses the dancers and coaches them over difficult patches. The two met last year during Isadora’s Tribe, the annual showcase series for independent choreographers and dancers. They both appeared in a work by Merenia Gray, and have continued to work together ever since.

“Claire is an amazing dancer and she is very genuine. She is very direct with the dancers, no pretending things are fine when they are not. The dancers love working with her and she is a great coach.”

The designer for Rite of Spring is Andrew Thomas, who has created some exceedingly striking sets for dance and theatre over the past few years, and who collaborated with Languet in 1994 on What Ever Happened to Eve. Thomas’ stage designs tend to be minimalist–one or two purpose-built pieces of stage furniture or an oversize sculpture which takes the eye and reinforces some central image from the dance. He prefers not to disclose the details before a production opens, but he does hint at what will be experienced,

“Let’s just say,” he grins, “that the set will endure an unusual amount of wear and tear from behaviour not usually associated with ballet, but which is entirely in keeping with the forces unleashed from Stravinsky’s score.”

Languet enjoys their collaborations. “Andrew is a very creative person, crazy with ideas. He pushes me to go further than I was willing at the start, and his designs are great motivation for me to go further in my choreography.”

This Rite of Spring has recorded music, recorded music, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by von Karajan. Languet notes apologetically that the score requires 98 musicians and endless rehearsals, and thus is too expensive for the ballet company to afford.

“Of course we’d all prefer live music,” he says, “but that has to be reserved for the big classical seasons where there’s a reasonable guarantee that costs will be covered. This season is seen as avant garde and very risky, and the company cannot afford to lose money.”

1995 has been a great year for Languet. He’s been working as a freelance dance professional, teaching at the Performing Arts Centre in Wellington, dancing and choreographing with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, and later this year will again participate in Isadora’s Tribe. He will also spend a month in Sumatra in Indonesia, surfing.”

“One good thing about freelancing is that I get time to go surfing. I’ve been chasing waves around the world for 22 years now. My favourite places to surf are Mexico, Indonesia and New Zealand. The best waves I’ve every found are in Mexico, big and powerful, but with short, very intense rides. Here in New Zealand I mostly head for the Wairarapa as it’s closest to home, but I also like surfing at Gisborne and New Plymouth.”

Like many other choreographers, Languet dreams of a company of his own. He hopes to start one up next year, and he has the perfect project to launch it with, depending on funding and sponsorship being arranged.

“Early in 1996, I will mount three works in collaboration with the Orpheus Choir. Two of these works will be set to Janacek pieces, including Otacenas, The Lords Prayer. The third is Stravinsky’s Les Noces. I’ll be working with ten dancers and with producer Steven Morrison. We hope to also present an Auckland season with the Auckland Opera, and perhaps to tour the program with recorded music.”

Languet is hopeful that his new contemporary ballet company will attract suitable sponsors to ensure survival for five months of the year. His vision is for a repertory company that tours nationally and visits small venues as well as large. The manager of this potential new company is Steven Morrison, formerly business manager of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

“In live performance at present,” Morrison says, “the companies have to take all the risks themselves. They rent the venues, they do their own promotion, they seek their own sponsors, and they do their best to pay their own wages, even when they aren’t lucky enough to receive Arts Council funding. But we are moving into a new era of arts funding, one where a lot of rethinking is required if live performance is to remain viable. The changes which arts administrators foresee are likely to shift responsibility from the companies to the presenting organisations such as theatres.”

“A small repertory company of the kind Eric proposes, ought to be seen as a suitable project for investment. The works will be seen in more than one season, and they will be toured throughout the country, even to small centres, so supporting the creation of the works ought to be seen as a sound investment.”

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