‘A Rite’ takes Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ back to its experimental core

February 9, 2013

“This music is all about sex!” squawks a bespectacled, nerdy musicologist as the slashing chords of Stravinsky’s ode to the id, “The Rite of Spring,” reach their shattering peak. Well, perhaps. But what was the rest of the show about?

This question went unresolved as “A Rite” came to the end of its 65 minutes. But that’s not to say that this unusual collaboration between the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the actors of the idiosyncratic theater troupe SITI Company was unsuccessful. (What was clear is that the two are like-minded champions of an open-ended process: SITI’s credo, “The theater is a gymnasium for the soul.”)

“A Rite,” a 2013 meditation on the 1913 paradigm-shifting score, is unapologetically in beta form. It is impassioned but unfinished; changes were made just before Friday’s performance at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Here was a true experiment, unfolding before our eyes, but no less engrossing for its scattershot view of a century-old experiment.

Like free verse and decent coffee, Stravinsky’s music once upset the norm but is now commonplace. Dance audiences are especially overexposed to the score, whose hammering and storming has been a favorite of choreographers ever since it caused conniptions at its Paris premiere with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

So what is there left to mine in the music? Just about every dance version I’ve ever seen offers few charms and bears the same faults: predictable use of the music, heavy-handedness, melodrama. But “A Rite” was different.

For starters, the music was only used in fragments. And there was as much talk as there was sound. In fact, this mix of young dancers and somewhat older actors, speaking as well as moving, looked exceedingly familiar. Here was a reincarnation of Washington’s own Dance Exchange, the multigenerational dance-theater company that Liz Lerman ran for 35 years before departing last year.

A battle-scarred World War I soldier makes repeated appearances, speaking bitterly of his own sacrifice: “They never told me that when you kill, you kill yourself.” A physicist in jacket and tie expounds on conflicting notions of time, underscoring that the eras separating our time from that of “The Rite of Spring’s” debut weighed upon “A Rite’s” creators, Jones and SITI director Anne Bogart.

How do you make an old piece of music sound fresh again? Toss the overly familiar orchestration and have the performers clap and stamp the music’s rhythm, as if they were backing up a flamenco concert or kicking off an Appalachian barn dance. And have them sing portions of it. (“It sounds like a migraine!” shrieked the musicologist, the work’s narrator of sorts, played by Ellen Lauren.)

The early hints of jazz in “The Rite of Spring” gave rise to a terrific nightclub scene, with the dancers jitterbugging and flinging themselves into the Charleston as we heard parts of a new jazz version of the score by the Bad Plus — a contemporary trio whose members include Ethan Iverson, the former musical director of the Mark Morris Dance Group. (Morris’s own “Rite of Spring” choreography to the complete Bad Plus version will have its premiere this summer.)

So much for the music and the acting. What of the dancing? There are references to Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” with a soloist breaking through a thick cluster of dancers and then being sucked back inside. But there was none of the lush, luxuriant dancing known to followers of Bill T. Jones here. The movement is basic; everyone, dancers and actors, can manage it seamlessly. Still, frenzy is the norm: Group scenes quickly dissolved into chaos, people speaking all at once, dashing wildly or remaining in oblivious solitude. There was a physical dissonance to mirror the musical one.

I took this to represent today’s lack of a hive mentality that could organize itself around a sacrifice. Maybe that’s the good news here: We’re just too distracted, or too self-absorbed, to hunt down any single quarry. At any rate, that this experiment exists is its own testament to the restless, searching spirit that gave rise to the previous one a century ago.

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