“Le sacre du printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) began life in 1913 as a ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and décor and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. Over the past 100-plus years, Stravinsky’s score has become a concert staple; it even starred, somewhat abridged, in the 1940 Disney film “Fantasia.” The ballet, meanwhile, has been rechoreographed by everyone from Léonide Massine and Maurice Béjart to Kenneth MacMillan, Pina Bausch, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, and Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo. Now, in a 2021 version from Australia’s Circa presented by the Celebrity Seriesat the Boch Center Shubert Theatre this weekend, “Sacre” goes to the circus. It’s not such an odd idea: Stravinsky, after all, also composed “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant.” And though the acrobatics and the aerials Thursday were eye-popping, Circa gives us circus in the service of dance.
The 65-minute piece, which is performed without intermission, isn’t just Stravinsky’s “Sacre.” His score runs 30-35 minutes, so Circa prefaces it with a half-hour of music from French composer Philippe Bachman. His contribution begins as a rumble; Veronique Benett’s subdued lighting begins as firefly flickers and lightning flashes that disclose human forms milling about and clustering. The music starts to suggest out-of-tune humpback whales; eventually it coalesces into an ambient industrial gloss on “Sacre.” The lighting, which remains subdued throughout, emanates from a point high above center stage.
The dancing tightropes between the horizontal of communal agitation and the vertical of striving upward; the choreography is as demanding, in its own way, as what Nijinsky created for the Ballets Russes. Dressed simply in black tops and pants or skirts, the six men (some bare-chested) and four women who emerge from the shadows form an initial pyramid, as if reaching for that light. Over the course of Bachman’s score, they duet like pair figure skaters, trying out acrobatic lifts, the men manipulating the women at first but then the women pushing back, holding their own. A woman climbs up to stand on another woman’s shoulders; then three men lift the pair still higher. Gunshot moments in the score are accompanied by blackouts; when a woman runs to fling herself into a man’s arms, the lights go out just before she lands. Towers of intersecting bodies are erected; toward the end of this first section, Bachman hints at Stravinsky’s kinetic “Dance of the Earth” and the dancers’ frenetic tumbling follows suit.
The second half of “Sacre” is set to Stravinsky (the Australian World Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta), and it finds Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, paying close attention to the composer’s Babel of meters, rhythms, and languages. The opening high-register bassoon accompanies a tender duet, the first such moment of the evening. The pounding chords of “Augurs of Spring” send the dancers into paroxysms, as if they were possessed by the god of light up above. A woman stands on the head of a man who’s standing on another man’s shoulders; a man supports a woman aloft with one hand while she does an upside-down split. For the arrival of Stravinsky’s Sage, the men lie supine and a woman walks on their hands; then they rise and elevate her with them.
The rest of Circa’s “Sacre” isn’t quite as attentive: the two tocsins signaling the fall of the Chosen One and the hammered 11/4 bar that announces her glorification don’t quite register. But the “Evocation of the Ancestors” has a woman standing centerstage while a man does a forward roll over her head and equally astonishing aerial maneuvers ensue. The final “Sacrificial Dance” encloses the Chosen One in a tight circle; forward walkovers, backflips, and splits lead to the moment of truth, but instead of dancing herself to death, she backs out of the circle as everyone else falls flat. It’s a reminder that, more than a century after the ballet’s premiere, “Sacre” still has the power to surprise.
Created by Yaron Lifschitz and the Circa Ensemble. Music by Philippe Bachman and Igor Stravinsky. Costumes by Libby McDonnell. Lighting by Veronique Benett. Performed by Circa. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Feb. 9 (repeats Feb. 10-11). Tickets $49-$65, 617-482-2595, www.celebrityseries.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.