Rite of Spring signals theatre’s rebirth

As the Rite of Spring reaches its centenary, what better piece to mark the rebirth of a theatre than one so rich with regeneration and the creative power of spring.

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Rite of Spring rehearsals

Choreographers across the country are reviving the ballet that caused such controversy with its first performance in 1913, and which some say still holds the power to shock and unnerve. One performance, in a cosy Portsmouth theatre last week, was particularly significant.

Over 100 young musicians and 40 local dancers brought this infamous piece to life. It is perhaps fitting that these were the final notes to fill the auditorium of the New Theatre Royal before it closed its doors for redevelopment. It will reopen in 2014 as a theatre reborn. Just as spring finally comes after the long winter, so the day has finally come, after 40 years of tireless work, when the regeneration of the theatre can finally begin.

Caroline Sharman, Director of New Theatre Royal, says: “the symbolism couldn’t be more apt.”

“To mark the centenary of the composition that totally challenged the music conventions of 1913 and is so rich with expressions of rebirth and regeneration chimes perfectly with our own story of rebirth.”

Construction work began this month as part of a £12 million joint project between the theatre and the University of Portsmouth to restore the backstage area and stage house, increase seating numbers and add much-needed workshop and office space. The theatre currently uses a temporary thrust stage after the original stage, orchestra pit and backstage area were completely destroyed in a fire in 1972.

The rebuild is also set to include a new Creative Learning Space where film, television and drama students from the university can train and perform, and where new practitioners and companies can develop and show their work in a cultural hub at the heart of the city.

Collaboration is key

Last week’s performance of the Rite of Spring was a truly collaborative project, involving the Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, local schools, community dancers and the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, with the assistance of players from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Caroline highlights the importance of creative collaborations like this: “It is only through collaboration that great art can be created and will be sustained. Our collaboration with the University of Portsmouth is enabling us to rethink and restore our theatre, and our partnership with Hampshire County Council’s Music Service enabled a 100-piece youth orchestra and 40 dancers to create such a great event together.”

“Partnerships, in my view, only work if both sides really want it and are prepared to work at it as much as each other. Saturday’s performance was testament to this collaboration’s success.”

Conducted by Carl Clausen, over 100 members of the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra performed the classic score live. A company of local dancers, choreographed by Jamie Roberts of Jam Jar Dance and Donna Bish, brought to life the story of an ancient society deciding which maiden to offer as sacrifice to the gods. The dancers, aged from early teens to mid seventies, came from local schools as well as community dance groups, including the Misspent Youth dance company, Fred and Ginger group, and the Aging Disgracefully dance group.

Students from two local schools worked with Fraser Trainer, an internationally renowned composer whose work has been performed at the BBC Proms, to produce music inspired by Stravinsky’s original score, which they performed on the night. A University of Portsmouth student production team, fondly referred to as ‘Laura’s Angels’, was involved in the costume design and stage management of the project, and also included the assistant creative producer and assistant choreographer.

A shared experience

Lead choreographer Jamie Roberts, of Jam Jar Dance, was keen to involve the local community in the project. “We decided to use community-based artists to make up our cast. Working with school and colleges as well as dance artists and over 50s was imperative to the success of our ‘Rite’. The collaboration between these groups leads to a wider bank of experiences on which to draw in the choreographic process. Using a range of people with a selection of ages provides them with a shared experience that helps bring the community together.”

Jill Larner, Head of Hampshire County Council’s Music Service, can see the benefits for the young people involved, of the different artistic disciplines working together. “It’s rare for the instrumentalists in the orchestra to have dancers there,” she says. “Suddenly the music isn’t just music, it’s being performed in the way it was meant, and the audience has a visual stimulus as well as the sound of the music itself. The dancers added a new dimension for our young musicians, and enabled them to experience the excitement of a different outlook on the music.”

“Equally, most of the dancers are probably used to dancing to a recorded track, so to perform to live music created by a 100-strong orchestra was hopefully a great new experience for them too.”

Looking to the future

So with the final performance of the season over and the doors firmly closed until next year, are the theatre staff confident of this being a success story, where so many regional theatres have failed?

Caroline is mindful of the challenges they face, but optimistic. “I still have much to do to embed our partners into our future plans so as to ensure the theatre’s sustainability. My challenge now is to find the balance between making and touring great shows to attract new audiences, providing a space to experiment as we nurture artistic talent of all ages and, importantly, providing excellent skills development opportunities for our local community. A tall order, but we certainly have the ideal place to offer it and some excellent partnerships already in place, so I feel optimistic too.”

Following on from its sell-out performance at New Theatre Royal on Saturday April 20, the Rite of Spring was performed at Anvil Arts, Basingstoke on Saturday April 27.

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