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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

'The Rite of Spring' 100 years ago Today!


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The Royal Ballet's production of Kenneth MacMillan's 'The Rite of Spring' in 2011.

On May 29, 1913, the audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris settled in for a performance by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. There were three pieces on the bill, but it was the debut of "The Rite of Spring," with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, that would transform this night at theater into one of the most influential cultural moments of the 20th century. The piece broke sharply with the ballet-centric approach to dance and expanded the range of classical music, causing a disturbance that has fascinated the arts world for a century.
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Members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company rehearse a new 'The Rite of Spring,' marking the work's centennial.
Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of that night, and the occasion is being celebrated before, on and after the actual date with all the special events that typically spring up around landmark moments in classical music. Unlike other anniversaries (May 22, for example, was the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth), this one feels a bit more accessible. There's been an ongoing festival-like vibe around "The Rite of Spring," in part because the audience is effectively doubled—it includes fans of both music and dance—and both camps get to see this old friend fairly frequently.

As a piece of concert music, "The Rite of Spring" is a 35-minute (give or take) work that can round out an evening's program as the crowd-pleaser. To mark the anniversary, the New York Philharmonic opened its 2012-2013 season with "Rite." The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is up next, with performances June 7-9.
On the dance side, the music is irresistible to choreographers, who are always finding new movement territory ever further from the original. On July 6, the Bard SummerScape festival will open with a new dance-theater version by Bill T. Jones and Anne Bogart; the production will travel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October. (It had its premiere at the University of North Carolina's festival, "The Right of Spring at One Hundred," which is wrapping up).

Offstage "Rite," of course, has its historic back story: It marks the collaboration of two seminal artists who turned Paris upside down. So many debates linger about the impact of its debut, you kind of expect Nancy Grace to weigh in. The crowd's reaction has been described as a "riot," but were fashionable Parisians in fact violently protesting? Or did witnesses just not have a word for "mosh pit"? First-hand accounts report that there were vocal objections, so loud that the dancers onstage couldn't hear the music. Or was the drama secretly manufactured for publicity by Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes?

Some of this will be addressed on Wednesday during a 24-hour "Rite of Spring" marathon on Q2 Music, the contemporary classical online station of WQXR. Host and curator Phil Kline says the musical segments will be a "hit parade of recordings." Also slated are unusual arrangements, including one for solo piano, to be performed live by Vicky Chow of Bang on a Can All Stars, in WNYC's Greene Space studio at 7 p.m.

Other celebrations will focus on the creative collaboration between Stravinsky and Nijinsky. NPR has been running a contest inviting listeners to submit videos of their own choreography to the music; the best will be posted Wednesday on the station's blog. There's even a new children's book, "When Stravinksy Met Nijinsky," written and illustrated by Lauren Stringer, that emphasizes the actual history of the work, as well as the concepts of exchanging ideas and artistic friendship.

For lovers of "The Rite of Spring," the reasons to see it time and again are all in the details. Different orchestras and conductors bring their own artistic choices. Arrangements, like Ms. Chow's for solo piano, present new ways of hearing a piece originally written for a large orchestra. "It is incredibly thick," said Mr. Kline, adding that the pianist's main question is: "Which elements can I get my two hands to cover?"

The changes are more visible when choreographers explore their visions. The late Pina Bausch created a version in 1975 that taps into the fierce desperation of both an individual and a zombie-like group dancing on a peat-covered stage. Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat introduced new constraints in a piece that opened in 2004: He put five dancers in a small rectangle of red light and had them perform a steady stream of cold-but-hot salsa moves.

The New York-based choreographer Shen Wei has staged his 2003 version—which uses 15 dancers and a four-hand piano version of the music—at Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory, with an emphasis on the group experiencing a collective tension through movements of extreme precision. Mr. Shen is now in the Netherlands creating a totally new version for the Dutch National Ballet. This one will include some 36 dancers moving to music orchestrated for 100 musicians.


"It was a big challenge to face it again. I have spent so much time working with this one piece of music," the choreographer said, estimating that for the 2003 production he spent about two years listening to the piano version, and for the new edition he spent a year listening to an orchestral version—in both cases focusing on the structure, tension and release in the music.

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Thanks to Patrick Speed for the information above.

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