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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Rite, Remixed

by Brian McCormick

“I’m a post-modern constructionist. The Nijinsky version would be problematic to modern people.” — Bill T. Jones

When Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring, he set out to shock. Written for the 1913 Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the score featured provocative approaches to rhythm and tonality, with transitions that lurched wildly and aggressively between movements. The primitivism of Nijinsky’s choreography and Roerich’s scenic elements evinced the ballet’s subtitle, Pictures of Pagan Russia. The music, likewise, was heavily influenced by Russian folk songs, although Stravinsky denied it. While there may have been chaos in the audience on opening night 100 years ago, The Rite of Spring has  become one of the best-known and most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Still, to many dance-makers, the idea of doing another Rite of Spring is practically taboo. “I’m a postmodern constructionist,” choreographer Bill T. Jones said. “The Nijinsky version would be problematic to modern people.”

“We come from the dance world,” added Janet Wong, associate artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. “We don’t want to make this.”

This very reluctance opened the way for the creation of A Rite, a collaboration between Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and SITI Company, under the artistic direction of Anne Bogart. They came together at the University of North Carolina through a festival organized by distinguished musicologist Severine Neff.

“What would happen,“ Bogart asked in their first meeting, “if the whole thing was a talkback?” From this original meta idea, the piece evolved into a highbrow dance-theater mash-up, weaving in the writings of physicist Brian Greene, the insights and analogies of Neff, and Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling book Proust was a Neuroscientist.

The work doesn’t completely reject the tropes of the original—there is sacrifice, death, and hierarchies within communities—but these are reflected through historical and social contexts. The soldier returning home from WWI, shellshocked and amnesiac, reflects the bombast in the score and the sacrifice of present-day veterans. The musicologist provides commentary, like Wikipedia or Twitter, offering analyses of the score, and facts and opinions about its legacy. The physicist discussing the nature of time and consciousness represents the advanced thinking of today, akin to conversations that Einstein might have provoked in 1913.

“I tend to start with ideas,” Bogart stated. “How The Rite of Spring changed people’s  brains. Here we were starting with the body. We have to be able to stomp it, clap it, and know it.” Jones noted, “The score was our guide, but the order is not there. The final composition is the first thing you see.” There are large group dances that reflect Nijinsky’s steps, but there isn’t a lot of the original choreography. “Just a few places for the historical eyes in the room.”

The rearranged score of A Rite mixes in selections from a variety of recording styles and
genres; one section is even sung by the cast. “I listened to music madly for two years with the score in front of me,” Wong exclaimed. “I could sing the whole thing to you.”

In one rambunctious passage that begins with a cacophonous, dissonant jazz rag and segues into a big band sound, the companies break out into the Charleston and other audacious American dance styles. “Were the rhythms in The Rite precursors of the jazz age?” asked Jones. “The modernity we attribute to Stravinsky was already existing in other forms not as well recognized. The Parisians were shocked by the turned in knees of Nijinsky’s choreography, but they’d be doing the Charleston on the Champs-Élysées a few years later.”

Bringing together these two companies, with their very different disciplines and specific techniques, required cross training and opening up to each other. The hybrid work, which features equal parts dancing and acting is as much a tribute to these two communities as it is to the score—but there is no denying it is homage. Lehrer’s book may have been the starting point, but Jones established from the very beginning that, “We don’t want to do anything until we have embodied the music.”

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company & SITI Company present A Rite Oct 3—5 at 7:30pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. There will be a post-show talk with Anne Bogart, Bill T. Jones, and Janet Wong on Oct 4.
Brian McCormick is a part-time assistant professor at The New School for Public Management.

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