Revisiting ‘Rite’… and Rights: 100 years after ‘Le Sacre’ exploded conventions, conventional women’s roles persist

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American Repertory Ballet in Douglas Martin’s “Rite of Spring.” Photo by Peter C. Cook.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2013, 2017 Christine Chen

(Editor’s Note, not necessarily implicating the author or reflecting the views of our sponsors, 2-23-2017: With an American president that Jane Fonda – who in herself contains several cycles of the evolution of how women have been perceived and have perceived themselves over the last nearly 60 years – has referred to as “the predator in chief” and a vice president cut straight from a ‘promise-keepers’ mold whose idea of women may be more luddite than the pagan worshippers of Stravinsky/Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Christine’s reflections below, first published March 13, 2013, are, unfortunately, today more pertinent than ever. — Paul Ben-Itzak)

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Last Sunday, we set the clocks forward. It was the first “spring rite” I performed this year (and it feels oddly premature given that it was snowing the day before in New York). Other spring rites which I’ll need to address soon include spring cleaning, spring training (for a half marathon my husband signed us up for), and of course, the spring season for American Repertory Ballet, of which I’m the managing director. This last rite’s ‘Rite’ — artistic director Douglas Martin’s new ‘Rite of Spring,’ which I’ll write about here — is all about rights.

One hundred years ago, Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes notoriously provoked riots among the spectators in reaction to Igor Stravinsky’s score, the dance, and perhaps Roerich’s book. The subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts,” better describes this libretto. At the end of each winter, a number of rituals must be performed before warmer temperatures can thaw the land and crops can flourish. I imagine Russian winters to be particularly severe, which would have made these pagan rituals all the more sacred and vital to those who performed them. After the last few brutal winter weeks here on the East Coast, I’m personally ready to dance myself to death to ring in the spring. And this is just what happens in ‘Rite’: at the climax of these spring rituals, a sacrificial victim dances herself to death, and from this, spring can spring.

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American Repertory Ballet in Douglas Martin’s “Rite of Spring.” Photo by Peter C. Cook.

As I’ve been watching Douglas Martin’s ‘Rite’ develop, I realize how brilliantly he is both paying homage to, and reinterpreting this libretto. He has lovingly re-set the story in 1961 corporate America — for a ready reference, think AMC’s Mad Men. He lays bare the office relations, the gender roles, and the rituals we now look upon as antiquated, even while we fetishize the mod fashions. On the one hand, it’s a societal self congratulation on how far we’ve come, but on the other, it’s a call to take a look at our current society and to wonder what today’s cultural norms will look like to people decades from now.

In 1913, Nijinsky was looking back on the Russian pagan rituals and, by laying bare their barbarism, made people realize how far society had come (how could those silly people actually believe that sacrificing a woman would actually make the seasons turn?). In 2013, Martin is looking back on mid-20th century culture and, by laying bare the barbarism in that society, makes us feel similarly superior to those who came before us (how could those silly people actually believe that only men could be executives and only women could be secretaries?).

In the end, (spoiler alert) Shaye Firer, who plays “the chosen one,” dances herself to death. But for what this time? We then see Samantha Gullace rising like a phoenix from her ashes to break through the metaphoric glass ceiling. Shaye’s character sacrifices herself not so the seasons will change, but so the culture can. Her sacrifice allows the women who come after her to rise in rank. In a way, it’s a Rite of Second Wave Feminism.

Which has made me wonder where we are on women’s rights issues today. When I was a woman’s studies minor in the 1990s, Arlie Hochschild’s “The Second Shift” (the title is a play on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”), a sociological study of dual-career households, was a canon staple. Hochschild’s “stalled gender revolution” referred to the fact that while a revolution had occurred and women were now more equally participating in the labor force, gender roles at home had not shifted. Women still held down the bulk of the housework, hence putting in a “second shift.” This work-home balance issue is still swirling. Last summer, Anne Marie Slaughter (Princeton politics professor/ former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department / dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) positioned herself as “the chosen one” — sacrificially saying what perhaps others wanted to say in her now famous Atlantic article aptly titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” And even more recently, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer drew feminist ire by banning telecommuting for the Internet giant’s employees. And yet, the positions these two women held and hold speak volumes about the status of the glass ceiling. Of course there are many other issues; this work-home balance just felt salient to me right now, personally. So, I leave you to consider what’s next. We’ve come so far, but where will we be next time we look back?

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