Shock of the New 

Artistic director and choreographer Bill T. Jones takes on the challenge of making the classic “Rite of Spring” new.

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Christina Lane

Oh, how we love to be shocked. Oh, how we love to be comfortable.

It might take two opposing truisms to explain how, over a long and violent century, composer Igor Stravinsky's jagged and screaming "The Rite of Spring" evolved from cultural pipe bomb to hallowed masterwork. It most certainly takes brilliant artists with bold companies to grapple with that transformation and make it new again.

Richmonders, who had the chance to see Richmond Ballet's version of "Rite" last fall based on Salvatore Aiello's choreography, are about to get a look at a new and experimental take on the classic.

It's the result of a year of work and sweat by Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Dance Company, with Anne Bogart's experimental theater group Siti Company, during the course of a year. The result was "A Rite," an adventurous, gripping dance work set to the 1913 Stravinsky score that accompanied Vaslav Nijinsky's iconoclastic ballet about a virgin sacrifice, famous for having caused a riot at its Paris premiere.

Jones, an acclaimed choreographer, dancer and MacArthur genius award winner, along with the prolific theater and opera director Bogart, were approached by the University of North Carolina about commissions in honor of the Stravinsky centenary last year. Initially Jones was wary of the idea.

"Under no circumstances did I want to fall into what I consider a modern dance trap of trying to make yet another 'Rite of Spring,'" he said. "But I knew there was something about Anne's mind and the idea of the shock of the new. And she was very interested in what resulted in that riot the first night. What does it take?"

Jones says he was intrigued, but didn't want to try to recreate the outrage of that first night. "That seemed like a quixotic, pointless journey. So we began to make a piece about making the piece," he says. "We began to make an exploration about an icon, as seen through the lens of our exchanges, one as a contemporary dance company, the other as an experimental theater company."

They worked together several times from April 2012 until the work's premiere at in Chapel Hill last January. As noted on Siti's website, the companies fell in love with the process. One night during the second rehearsal period, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a group of performers got together in someone's apartment, turned out the light, turned on "The Rite" and improvised through the full 30-minute score. Siti notes that "this led to a rehearsal practice in the studio: Turn on 'The Rite of Spring' … Go! Keep going until it ends."

Early on Jones says he came up with an image of a man walking during the 1913 Paris premiere but somewhere far from Paris, walking toward something cataclysmic, perhaps World War I, which began the following year. This image caught Bogart and the performers as well and was preserved and shaped by the inclusion of narratives from WWI veterans in the piece. "The war, the war, the war," Jones says. "I didn't want it to be about the war, but the war was just one of the cataclysms that were evoked in me on listening to 'The Rite of Spring.'"

The challenge of taking on a master work and digging into its roots was exhilarating, he says.

"I think the work is about how a great masterpiece can be the actual turning point for artistic exploration of contemporary artists," Jones says. "A great masterpiece which is selfish in its pre-eminence challenges us who are working right now to find meaning, to assault it, to connect to it. There's a kind of ritual, isn't there, of the cultural object. There's a ritual that takes place between the maker who creates it, and then there's this discourse, sometimes rancorous and explosive, and if the object is durable enough, or if it has good enough luck, it survives and it's moved up to the pantheon. We were trying to analyze that rite of how things get made, our own work being one of them."

Every time they perform it they discover something new, Jones says. "It took a while to get there," he says. But when he watched it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, "it was everything that I had hoped it would be. And I say that knowing that I could not have imagined what it is now." S

Bill T. Jones, the Arnie Zane Dance Company and Siti Company present "A Rite" at Modlin Center for the Arts on Thursday, Jan. 23, and Friday, Jan. 24, at 7:30 p.m., in the Alice Jepson Theatre. Tickets cost $20 to $40. For information, visit modlin.richmond.edu.


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