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'Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky' comes to Varsity Theatre

Paris, 1913: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” opens at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and is met with cries of outrage and hostile taunts.

Amid the cacophony, prominent designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel spies something reminiscent of her own unconventional art form in the avant-garde Russian piece.

As a centennial celebration, Carolina Performing Arts is putting on “The Rite of Spring at 100,” featuring numerous performances centered around Stravinsky’s work.

The commemoration opens this weekend with a free screening of Jan Kounen’s 2009 film “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” at the Varsity Theatre on Saturday.

The film portrays Chanel’s tumultuous affair with Stravinsky against the backdrop of his controversial composition.

In the movie’s lengthy prelude, the notorious opening night of “The Rite of Spring” is re-enacted with compelling energy. The avant-garde eccentricity of the ballet is displayed through gripping stage shots, interspersed with pans revealing the growing outrage of the audience.

The first audience remarks — “C’est du bruit!” (“It’s noise”) and “It’s outrageous” — are closely followed by “Go back to Russia,” barked in true French xenophobic fashion.

The chaos is perfectly represented: fights break out, spectators walk out in defiance, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky shouts instructions louder and louder to the dancers, manager Sergei Diaghilev switches the house lights on and off, giving the entire scene a stroboscopic touch.

A dejected yet stern Stravinsky — portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen — blames the dancers. The police are called to restore order.

Both the musical score and the recreated choreography of the film credibly convey the fully disruptive impact of the ballet on Parisian bourgeois sensibilities.

Undeterred by the surrounding disarray, Chanel — played by real-life Chanel model Anna Mouglalis — looks on, boldly appreciating what her contemporaries disparage.

Seven years later in the film, Chanel is an even more prominent figure in the fashion world while Stravinsky, now an exiled refugee, lives in a cramped hotel room with his wife and four children.
Chanel invites the Stravinsky family to stay with her.

And an explosive affair ensues between the titular duo.

Though incredibly compelling in its opening representation of a historic moment in modernist culture, the film never regains its initial dynamism. The pace slows to depict almost wordlessly the affair between two of the 20th century’s most prominent artistic talents.

The fierce battle between Stravinsky’s wife Katya, played by Elena Morozova, and Chanel embodies the era’s struggle between tradition and modernity.

In one scene, Katya sits praying dutifully at the dinner table, while Chanel looks on unimpressed, smoking and pushing her wine glass to the side impatiently for a refill. Katya fiercely opposes her host, a woman for whom monogamy and dependence are clearly outdated concepts.

In its careless affront to traditional bourgeois sensibilities, the sensual relationship portrayed in the film mirrors the defiant nature of “The Rite of Spring.”

With dialogue scant, Stravinsky’s background score drives the film and sets the affair on a canvas of the passion and ineffability of the ballet.

“Coco and Igor” opens CPA’s “The Rite of Spring at 100” effectively, contextualizing the ballet in the inhospitable soil of a condemnatory society — one leaning toward modernism but still very much anchored in the muddy banks of a traditional past.

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