Five years ago, when the idea of celebrating “The Rite of Spring” began percolating at UNC-Chapel Hill, one of the first people that Carolina Performing Arts director Emil Kang called was Anne Bogart. Paying proper homage to Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 masterwork would be a tall order, but Bogart – director of New York’s ensemble-based SITI Company – has never shied away from ambitious programs.
“Anne was among the artists I talked to very early on,” Kang said last fall. “It was a great privilege to be able to take part in this with everyone.”
Bogart’s contribution to the program premieres this weekend, a piece called “A Rite.” A collaboration between Bogart’s theatrical group and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, it features a “deconstruction” of Stravinsky’s original score. And Bogart jokes that she actually got off lightly compared to her collaborators.
“For anyone in dance, hearing the words ‘Rite of Spring’ is terrifying,” Bogart said. “It’s the biggest gauntlet for any choreographer, because it’s so iconic and every great choreographer since 1913 has attempted to stage it. For me as a theater director, however, there’s no onus. I grew up hearing the music and I’ve always been excited by it. The prospect of doing this was thrilling because it meant I got to live with it; get inside it, study it, be altered by it. Try to figure out why it caused riots, why people were so upset.”
Indeed, “The Rite of Spring” was hugely controversial in its day. When it debuted in Paris in 1913, the initial performance of “Rite” caused a riot because its unsettling dissonance was so far outside the norm of what audiences expected.
But that was 100 years ago. Since then, “Rite” has become a familiar touchstone, especially after Walt Disney used the music to score a sequence depicting earth through geologic time in the 1940 cartoon epic “Fantasia.”
“I don’t know what music would make people crazy now,” Bogart said. “It’s hard to find an equivalent now. People are so used to extreme information, it’s not as easy as it used to be. What about ‘Rite of Spring’ so outraged people that they found it unbearable? And then two months later in London, it was a hit and completely accepted. Then it was turned into advertising, Disney music and who knows what else.”
For Bogart and Jones, overcoming that very familiarity was a challenge – along with trying to bridge the different artistic languages of dance and theater. “A Rite” draws from and extends one of Bogart’s previous projects, 2007’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” which was based on “Rite of Spring” as well as Jonah Lehrer’s book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” (which was about what happened to people’s brains upon hearing Stravinsky’s “Rite” in 1913).
“There’s the interesting notion that new music, whether rock ’n’ roll or Stravinsky, changes neuron patterning in the brain through the shock of the new,” Bogart said. “We’re actually using some material from the book in our collaboration, so there’s a little brain science in it as well. Americans think of the French Revolution as ‘Les Mis’ even if they’ve never seen it, because it’s so pervasive. ‘Rite of Spring’ is also a deeply pervasive icon, people sort of know it even if they’ve never actually listened to it. That suggests we take in cultural influences by osmosis.”
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