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June 26, 2013
Peg Skorpinksi / Courtesy of Cal Performances
When the Mark Morris Dance Company debuted their version of The Rite of Spring last week, they were up against a hefty precedent. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes premiered the original 100 years ago, causing the audience to riot. Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was so primal and angular, and Igor Stravinsky’s score so alarming, that the crowd at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées, bewildered and insulted, booed and jeered. Before the first act was over, they were throwing punches. The uproar drowned out the orchestra, and Nijinksy had to climb on a chair in the wings and shout out counts to help the dancers keep time. Forty protesters were kicked out of the theater. Classical music and dance would never be the same: Modernism had arrived.
At least, that’s the story we like to tell. But eyewitness accounts from that evening contradict one another and themselves to such a degree that it’s impossible to tell exactly what happened. As the historian Modris Eksteins has pointed out, it would’ve been hard to drown out a hundred-piece orchestra, and Nijinksy was probably counting aloud “because of the difficulty of the choreography and the lack of conventional rhythms in the musical score,” as he had done throughout rehearsals. Diaghilev, hoping for a succés de scandale, “probably... spent weeks preparing Paris for battle,” writes Alistair Macauley. And the audience, split between the moneyed set who wanted tradition and the bohemians who embraced the avant-garde, may have been angrier at one another than at the artists.
Still, those stories aren’t as appealing as the idea that art alone could incite a riot. Perhaps that’s why, just three months after running an article debunking the myth, The Guardian published another that perpetuates it. The Rite of Spring tops a list of moments we love to repeat—Pete Seeger pulling the plug when Bob Dylan went electric; Pentecostals protesting the Sex Pistols; the USPS burning copies of Ulysses; the San Francisco Police Department trying to ban Howl—because they tell us that great art has the power to shock. They tell us that shock can have staying power. What’s more, they reassure us that we are wise enough to “get” revolutionary artists, even if their peers weren’t always ready.
A few years after the premier, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the original choreography had been lost. In the ensuing century, The Rite of Spring has shifted from a scandal to a cultural behemoth. Untold numbers of choreographers have created their own versions and staked their own claims on dance history. Last week, at Cal Performances in Berkeley, Mark Morris became the latest to join their ranks, setting his Spring Spring Spring to a rendition of Stravinsky’s score by a jazz trio, the Bad Plus.
In 1937, Lester Horton transplanted the tale of the pagan, sacrificial virgin—the “Chosen One”—to the American West. In 1959, Maurice Béjart replaced the “Chosen One” with a couple in flesh-colored costumes who go at it onstage surrounded by a kind of violent orgy. In 1975, Pina Bausch transformed the story into a chilling critique of misogyny. In 1980, Paul Taylor’s Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) substituted a dance company’s rehearsal of a pulpy detective story for the Russian ritual. As part of a 1997 performance of Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical, dancers in costumes from the original, 1913 production stormed the stage and abducted a contemporary dancer who wore practice clothes and Kleenex boxes on her feet. The past, apparently, was threatened by the postmodern.
Leading up to last week’s performance, it sounded like Mark Morris, too, would rebel against tradition. He claimed not to have realized that it was the hundredth anniversary of Rite. He said that he’d decided to throw away the story—he would sacrifice no virgins, he joked, because his company had none. He would respond to Stravinsky’s rhythms as played by the Bad Plus in their superb score, rather than worrying about his artistic predecessors.
Yet you couldn’t miss Spring Spring Spring’s nods to the past. Dancers regularly linked hands in a circle, center stage, recalling the motions of the Virgins in the original production. (You can catch a glimpse of how this might have looked in Millicent Hodson’s 1987 reconstrucion of the original for the Joffrey. ) Morris’s dancers often seemed to have stepped off a frieze. They shifted from one foot to another while keeping their bodies as flat as gingerbread men. They hopped floppily backwards as if pulled by a force from outside. And though there was no narrative, and no singular sacrifice, everyone crumpled to the floor at the end of the piece: death still closed things down.
These echoes made the work more intriguing, not less. You could almost take the title—which banishes “the Rite of” in favor of triple emphasis, Spring Spring Spring—as an exhortation. The dancers were certainly dressed for the season: the women wore vaguely Grecian dresses, the men were shirtless, and little sprigs of green in their hair made them all look downright Dionysian. When they sprang into the air in repeated, jumping-bean style hops, however, the emphasis was on the descent, not the release. They seemed pulled down by Stravinsky’s heavy beats.
For Morris, music may be where history’s power lies. You hear a version of what people have heard for decades: it may be a jazz trio instead of a symphony, but those polyrhythms are inescapable, and all that percussion (drummer Dave King’s performance was thrilling) has a way of pulling one down to the earth.
The music inspired more light-hearted gestures, too, like the times dancers pumped their arms, shook their shoulders, and seemed to march in place. Overall, though, this wasn’t the kind of playful romp Morris sometimes gives audiences. Its pleasures were in the abstract patterns the piece taught you how to watch. In one section, dancers made circles with their arms and twirled around as if with absent partners. In another, women made the same circles with their arms and leaned onto the backs of men crawling on all fours, poignant supports who pivoted them about. This wasn’t revolutionary, just new. It was at once subtle and breathtaking. Spring Spring Spring reminds us that, despite the romance of shock, art needn’t start a riot to feel fresh.
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