BECKET, Mass. — Friends and colleagues cautioned Heddy Maalem not to choreograph to Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.” The music is iconic, steeped in lore and vivid imagery. Creating another version of “Sacre,” as other misguided choreographers have, would be chancy. The risk of failure, high.
Well, Maalem didn’t listen. And his resultant new dance, for his Compagnie Heddy Maalem, is a riveting rendering of this primal, driving score that not only reinterprets the music but its narrative. In the Nijinsky original, the “sacre,” or rite, is a fertility ritual. And as part of the ceremony, a village girl must be sacrificed.
This, by the way, caused riots to ensue at its 1913 Paris premiere.
Maalem, a native of Algeria who lives in France, heard the music as a metaphor for Africa. That is why he staged it with 14 dancers from different parts of Africa. Yet, as the piece is performed at Jacob’s Pillow, “Sacre” is a condemnation against those who conspire to drive a wedge into communities then savor the violence it incites.
Maalem’s version includes film images by Benoit Dervaux, too. And that’s how the work begins — with the rumble of thunder and a rolling film of blurred palm trees bending in the wind. Two dancers, a man and a woman (Hardo Papa Salif Ka and Simone Gomis), in silhouette are hunched. Slowly, their hands extend in a bid for friendship. They clasp and then cling to each other against the storm.
The stage goes black and silent. And then we hear the first notes of Stravinsky’s score, a high-pitched bassoon. Its sound elicits a sense of reaching back to a distant time or calling the world to life. A dozen dancers, again in silhouette, inch forward as if they are taking the first tentative steps of humankind.
The lights slowly brighten and the dancers shake off a stiffness. As the music builds, they pair up. Holding each other as if they were going to waltz, they pulsate, bobbing their heads as the propulsive drum beats hammer their bodies.
Dressed in bathing suits, the women in bikinis and the men in trunks, they look both vulnerable and primitive. And as they stomp and flay, two interlopers enter, one on each side. They take center stage, stamp one foot and fling their heads up and down as the others stop and watch.
From there, the two (Alberto Jacinto Nhabangue and Kingsley Odiaka) proceed to infect the crowd. They divide them, men against women, contrive an orgy, let loose silent screams and plague them in their sleep. The rhythms, dissonant and asymmetrical, heighten the drama. And it’s impossible to look away.
Throughout, Maalem’s imagery, along with Dervaux’s accompanying film, is powerful. He creates movement that speaks of endless struggle. Dancers convulse, quake, fight, kick and slap themselves as if swarmed by mosquitoes. It’s to no avail. The bad guys win.
The piece ends with only one man, Dramane Diaraa. At the edge of the stage, he cowers and trembles to the sounds of a horse galloping away.
As the stage goes dark, the audience lets out a sigh of relief. Maalem’s dance is over, but the provocative images are seared into the mind’s eye.
Compagnie Heddy Maalem
WHERE: Jacob’s Pillow, Route 20, Becket, Mass.
WHEN: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $58, $53 for seniors, students and children to age 16
MORE INFO: (413) 243-0745 or www.jacobspillow.org