La Danse Espagnole, vu par Natalia Gontcharova et André Levinson / Spanish Dance in Paris, as seen by Natalia Gontcharova & André Levinson

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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?

Flash Flashback: ‘Everything’ and the (Pet Shop) Boys — The ‘Incredible’ destiny of Javier De Frutos with H.C. Andersen

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A scene from Javier De Frutos’s new “The Most Incredible Thing,” with an original score by the Pet Shop Boys. Gavin Evans photo courtesy Sadler’s Wells.

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2011, 2017 Josephine Leask

LONDON — “The Most Incredible Thing,” seen in its premiere earlier this Spring at Sadler’s Wells, was a big event in the city’s dance calendar, attracting more anticipatory press coverage than any other dance happening since the local screening of “The Black Swan.” Pop stars, an infamous choreographer, a fairy-tale, phenomenal dancers and extravagant designs were some of its winning ingredients. Set to an evening-length score by the pop duo the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, who were inspired to make a work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same name, “The Most Incredible Thing” centers on nothing less than the power of art to stand up to human destruction.

Tennant and Lowe’s composition is based on their distinctive electronic dance music, here performed by a full orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Direction and choreography is by Javier de Frutos, an inspired choice by ‘The Boys’ and a marriage made it heaven — at least so it appeared from the strength of the collaboration. De Frutos has made a welcome comeback to Sadler’s Wells after having been reviled by some dance critics and spectators for his controversial piece “Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez,” performed as part of “In the Spirit of Diaghilev” at Sadler’s Wells in October 2009. That work, a response to the inventive and flamboyant scenarios and designs of Jean Cocteau, depicted a fictional pope who raped and molested alter boys and raped a pregnant nun. While it was not the first De Frutos work to feature sex and violence, it was so intentionally over the top that while some spectators and critics took offense, others raved about it. However, de Frutos received death threats and a lot of negative press, the final rejection coming from the BBC, which cancelled plans to broadcast de Frutos’s work during Christmas on a program with three other choreographers.

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