This year marks the centennial celebration of composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s revolutionary work, “The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps),” which premiered in Paris with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
In the dance world, Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is one of a few legendary ballets of the 20th century. In short, these gentlemen dared to present a work that looked nothing like ballet did at the time; it included paganism, revolt, sacrifice and music that was not pleasing to the affluent of Russia. This dance, the music and the event caused a riot that is forever remembered.
As part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company & SITI Company will present “A Rite,” a collaborative work conceived, directed and choreographed by Anne Bogart (artistic director of SITI Company), Jones (artistic director, co-founder and choreographer) and Janet Wong (associate artistic director of the Jones/Zane Company) on Oct. 3-5.
Jones posed a question most might ask about the creation of yet another work related to “The Rite of Spring”; he asked, “How many different questions can we ask of a modern masterpiece?” Regarding the many versions of this masterpiece, Jones said, “There are too many … like there are too many people writing too many love songs in the world, there are too many ‘Rite of Springs.’” This was his dilemma when he discovered that Bogart, someone whom he admires, was also commissioned by Emil Kang of Carolina Performing Arts to create a version of “The Rite of Spring.”
“This was what I wanted to avoid,” Jones said. Bogart, on the other hand, was not concerned about creating another dance based on the piece. “Coming from the theater world, I’m not at all,” she said.
Both decided that it was wonderful to have a similar commission, and it was also a great opportunity for them to work with each other. “We have great respect for each other, and that’s how the project came together,” said Jones.
Once they agreed to proceed, Jones insisted that there be a different path, and because he loved the music, that was the direction he followed. From the start, he said, “We really pushed the people to physicalize the score. It [wasn’t] enough to pull out a tape recorder and listen to the music.” Wong remembered how working closely with musicologist Severine Neff helped them understand the music.
“I would dive into the music, and Anne would focus more on compositional exercises and how that would trigger people to get into the work,” Wong said.
Thanking her mother for forcing her to study the piano so that she could impart the importance of the music to the dancers, Wong exclaimed, “I studied it madly, breaking it down to chunks … because dancers could better understand the phrasing. We were generating material … we just kept going.” She maintains, “The music is a big guide when you are working in the abstract and deconstructed way; the music helped us go forward.”
The other draw for Jones was the idea of “primitivism.” “As a Black person, [Nijinsky’s] turned-in knees looked like Jazz Age dancing,” Jones said. This idea evolved into the image of a man walking alone. “I was trying to think of some humble human being on that hot day in May when the piece premiered, walking in a lot of places,” Jones said. “I was thinking Harlem, but of course because you can’t do everything, he became a soldier returning from war.” So in the work, “There is a figure of a ’20s-era Black man who appears on the back of a piano, and we’re dancing to a jazz transcription of ‘Rite of Spring.’”
Barring the expected difficulties of juggling multiple schedules and collaborative differences, tantamount to this project was the task of bringing the actors and dancers together to build a community. The dancers shared their training in a modified way with the actors, and the actors shared their investigative acting methodologies (Viewpoints and Suzuki) with the dancers.
According to Bogart, one example of this collaborative training occurred in the beginning. “Janet made some material based on gestures, and I said, ‘Take that material and make a dance in a small square space that if you did it long enough, it would kill you … if you repeated your phrase enough, you would die.’ We called that ‘dance until you die,’ because, of course, in ‘The Rite of Spring,’ a woman dances until she dies.”
After each actor did their interpretation to exhaustion, Bogart would step in, turn off the music, bring them a stool and interview them. “How do you feel?” she would ask. It was these process-building sessions that helped build the text and other material for the final work. Wong remembered, “We were almost always in the room together … and that was important. Otherwise, we would be making our own work.”
Jones added, “There is something about this already corporeal consciousness that SITI company has, moving in spatial relationship to each other, and then combining that with our gestural language, our sense of musical space—that is how the choreography was made … I like what we’ve got … I think it’s a special piece.”
“A Rite” received its world premiere in January 2013 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; it is part of the 30th anniversary of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the 20th anniversary of SITI Company. It was commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts. “A Rite” also incorporates writings of physicist Brian Greene, Neff and Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling book “Proust was a Neuroscientist.”
For more information, visit www.bam.org.