Opening night of Le Sacre du Printemps, better known to English speakers as The Rite of Spring, created one of dance history's most infamous stories. With music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, this ballet concert opened in 1913 with the subtitle, "Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts." Both the music and dance were wild, dissonant and primal, and the choreography's narrative included a virgin sacrifice. Much of the audience stormed out.
The original choreography wouldn't be remounted until the 1980s by the Joffrey Ballet, but Stravinsky's music would have a second life with new dance and even bury its way into the memories of children around the world as the soundtrack for the extinction of the dinosaurs. Like many American children, that's where choreographer Joshua L. Peugh heard the music for the first time. It would be years, though, before he would think about it again.
Peugh is the brain behind Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, an internationally renowned company based in Dallas and South Korea. During his six years working in the latter country, Peugh had a mentor who choreographed a dance based on the Tarot deck to Stravinsky's brash score. For Peugh, this was the introduction to Rite of Spring that stuck.
"It's been on my mind for the last four years that I'd like to choreograph something to that music. It's just such a fascinating score," Peugh says, on a phone call from Houston where he is creating a new work for METdance. "I kept imagining it as prom in the 1950s."
Mid-century America is often the aesthetic Peugh uses for Dark Circles. He likes the music and the style of clean lines and polite extravagance. It's a perfect counterpoint for his choreography, which tends to explore human desire or passion. For Rite of Spring, though, he imagined something a bit different, which he discovered in the drag community while working in Seattle.
"Something that's interesting to me about drag culture is that it's performative on purpose," says Peugh. "It's all about the performance of a character or putting on a theatrical mask. I'm usually asking my dancers to do the opposite, to fill up the dance with themselves."
For Peugh, this performance can also be found in the tradition of a 1950s prom, where teenagers were trying on the mask of adulthood [for the] first time. This pretense of manhood or womanhood, the fancy clothes, the fulfillment of traditional gender roles — all of that was ripe for some gender bending. His sacrificial virgin? A young man in drag.
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"I'm not quite finished with the dance yet, so I'm not exactly sure what I'm trying to get at," says Peugh. "That's my process. I'm curious about some questions, and usually I end up with more questions than answers, but that's like life. The more experiences I have, the grayer everything seems."
The finished result will premiere at the City Performance Hall in March 2016. It's the first new work Peugh will premiere in Dallas — the company usually performs in Fort Worth — and it's also his first work set to a full classical score. It joins the bill with new choreography by Avant Chamber Ballet's Katie Cooper for the Russian masterwork Raymonda, as well as George Balanchine's Who Cares?
"It will be quite the Russian night. Of course, through a very American lens," says Peugh.
Dark Circles Contemporary Dance + Avant Chamber Ballet perform at the City Performance Hall March 4, 2016. Tickets go on sale Friday, December 11. More at darkcirclescontemporarydance.com.