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Originally published Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:00 AM

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Chouinard’s ‘Rite’: astonishing dance, astounding dancers

Canada’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s “Rite of Spring” blends animal movement with animistic spirit, while the troupe’s “24 Preludes by Chopin” yields quiet pleasures just as deep. Through Jan. 26, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

Compagnie Marie Chouinard

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $20-$42 (206-543-4880 or www.uwworldseries.org). Includes partial nudity.

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Dance review

Animal movements and animistic spirits fuse ferociously in Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s “The Rite of Spring.”

The Canadian choreographer’s 1993 signature work may dispense with overt narrative (no pagan tale of virgin sacrifice here). But it nonetheless pulls you instantly into a rich, totemic world.

Its power stems in part from Chouinard’s ceaselessly inventive movement: an ever-evolving hybrid of human and animal body language where birds, horses, stags and other creatures seem to lurk, lurch and prowl in human guise.

The piece’s energy also springs directly from its astonishingly gifted dancers, who perform bare-chested (men and women alike), their faces daubed in painted stripes.

Lucy M. May leads off with an undulating feline-flavored solo in exquisitely sharp time with the music. As she dances under a cone of light, images “light up” behind her like visions out of myth: a kneeling antlered creature … two men in lumbering battle. The stage stays sparsely populated, as the piece proceeds in solos, duets and, occasionally, larger configurations.

All the dancers have spellbinding moments — some sustained, some fleeting. But Leon Kupferschmid is extraordinary: wiry, swift, using his head and neck as a “limb” as much as he does his arms and legs. When he joins forces with May in the final moments of Part I of the Stravinsky score, the two deliver a head-bobbing courtship ritual that all but has them leaping out of their skins.

In Part II, “The Sacrifice,” the life force behind the dance becomes still more unruly, as horns that the dancers carry mimic phallic prowess or become sharp-pointed antlers of beasts in a herd.

Chouinard has said the piece contemplates the instant when life first appeared. “The performance,” she elaborates, “is the unfolding of that moment.”

No need for any meaning beyond that. The one odd touch is the closing image, which isn’t nearly as potent as the Kupferschmid/May duet that ends Part I.

UW Symphony Orchestra, led by Jonathan Pasternack, accompanies this “Rite.” While there’s a ragged moment or two in the winds and strings, the weighted complexity of the rhythms unleashed by the powerhouse percussion and brass sections is never in doubt. They make the whole theater shake. Using a recording (Chouinard’s usual practice) wouldn’t have half the impact.

“The Rite of Spring” is paired with “24 Preludes by Chopin,” a 1999 Chouinard piece that, in its quieter way, is as deeply satisfying as “Rite.” Pianist Brooks Tran performs the Chopin cycle live (splendidly). Again, solos, duets and trios dominate.

There’s lighter wit here — sometimes whimsical, sometimes sharp. Chouinard knows how to make the most of minimal gestures. Gérard Reyes — bent over, only the top of his head visible — executes a “hand ballet” as detailed and concise as musical notation. James Viveiros and Megan Walbaum are brilliant in a duet where she makes all sorts of spatial maneuvers within his embrace, before swinging from his arms like a pendulum.

The dance sometimes responds directly to the music, sometimes contradicts its moods. It plays with space. It plays with expectations. It yields both formal pleasures and jazzy fun. It’s a tour-de-force for its dancers — and if it were on DVD, I’d have it on repeat play at home right now.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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