by Byron Woods
Some rites are seasonal. It's a fact those who've spent any part of their lives in close contact with the land know, intimately. Plant tomatoes in the spring under the sign of Scorpio; set potatoes in the dark of a Cancer moon. Feed a pig generously—until the last week of its life. Then, at the first hard frost, gather family members or neighbors. Shoot it in the head, hang it by its heels and slit its throat.
But, as many have observed, our culture has largely determined to estrange itself from nature, as well as estrange ourselves from one another. In doing so, it has created something not entirely predicted. Call it an epidemic of rites.
They have no season. The rite of need, for example: enacted each time an inadequately compensated laborer draws his wages and is forced to choose which necessity his family must do without. The infinite rites of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rite of alcoholism. The rite of post-traumatic stress. The rites of domestic violence and rape.
Over and over, they occur. Months or weeks from graduation, the overconfident teenager edges a car he’s not that experienced with just over the borderline. A man, far more fragile than he imagined, is confronted with one last indignity, one last unbearable change, and looks at the pistol, the rifle, the semiautomatic weapon in its case.
And somewhere in northern North Carolina, a reactionary board of education provides its students with all the tools they need to thrive—in a culture and economy that winked out of existence some 40 years before. It is the Spring. More than one family is thankful that the military is willing to offer their children a ticket out of the dead mill town.
Later, the officer, in immaculate dress blues or the crisp taut gray of the Highway Patrol, walks across the yard to the front door of the house. She hesitates, then knocks. Again. And then again.
And thus we arrive at the title of choreographers Bill T. Jones, Janet Wong and director Anne Bogart’s new work whose world premiere took place last weekend at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
For if composer Igor Stravinsky, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky and designer Nicholas Roerich were free to imagine a sole, indomitable ritual that governed the lifecycle of an early pagan Russian tribe in their 1913 collaboration The Rite of Spring, it’s clear that no such luxury presented itself to these modern-day artists looking back to the world in which the work first appeared.
By then, instead of sacrificing a select handful of dancing young maidens during the first 13 years of the new century, various European wars and conflicts had already killed over 156,000 soldiers and civilians, in the Balkans, Moldavia, Poland, Macedonia and along the border of Italy and Turkey. (All of these, it bears noting, came before the start of World War I. Over the four years after the Paris premiere of The Rite, that conflict would kill another 16 million.)
In that role, a gaunt Will Bond relates the experiences of an infantryman whose clothing—and back and neck—have been peppered by shrapnel and pinhead shell wounds. “They picked out all the pieces,” he recalls. “Then they gave me a double dose of tetanus serum, and said ‘Soldier on!’”
In his hands, he wields a device that looks like a small radio or tape player. His thumb pushes a button. In the stillness, the only sounds are Stravinsky’s first oboe notes on its cheap, tinny speaker.
The infantryman chuckles, then begins to laugh. He’ll be laughing, repeatedly, through the evening. It’s a killing joke.
In compiling texts from best-selling theoretical physicist Brian Greene and UNC School of Music professor Severine Neff (both of whom appear as characters in the work, portrayed respectively by actors Stephen Duff Webber and Ellen Lauren), the creators of A Rite attempt, not always successfully, to pull away from that soldier’s plight and assess larger cultural changes, in that world and in the years since the dawn of the last century.
In sequences that seem at first a complete non-sequitur to all that’s come before, Greene discloses that one of the very few functional definitions scientists have for time—time itself—involves reoccurring processes. From the path the sun makes across the sky to the oscillation of a single cesium atom, he notes, we make clocks out of anything that repeats.
It’s left for the audience to connect two still rather distant dots: the common ground this scientific definition shares with the notion of rite as a regularly recurring event.
In her not always complementary interpretation, Lauren’s version of Neff fusses over the particulars of the history of Stravinsky’s work. She frets over the lack of documentation on the score (“Documentation? You try to get documents from the Russians!”), obsesses over particulars and cajoles us over the meaning of the work. “Don’t you get it? This piece is about basic instincts, emotions and desires,” she breathlessly observes at one point, while Stravinsky’s music roils in its middle passages. “Don’t you have them? I do!”
If that moment sent a chill down the spines of audience members last Saturday night, the prismatic choreography of Wong and Jones repeatedly did likewise. After the combined troupes walked in silently from the dark at the back of a stage initially lit by a single, naked light bulb, they broke into energetic, fast explorations of taped zones that resembled something between a hopscotch grid and the periodic table of elements.
As the infantryman’s memories unspool, the actions on stage freeze, punctuated by strobe lights and sudden darkness on stage. Subsequent spotlit areas provide a visual invocation of the soldier’s flashbacks of combat, juxtaposed immediately with his present surroundings. At other points, the warrior is pulled up, backwards and over the heads of ensemble members, sucked head over heels into the chaos of conflict.
He slingshots, repeatedly, from the fevered mash of armed combat to an empty locale where a woman with vivid red hair (Jenna Riegel) observes his agonies with great concern. In other sequences, she and others (including Neff and Greene) populate bloody tableaux of violence and its aftermath, the most disturbing of which is set to quotes from Jimi Hendrix’ version of “Taps.”
In a number of these pictures, the infantryman is grinning.
The deliberately broken mosaic of this work takes us from such scenes to sequences where company members trace oblique orbitals around one another, sometimes pairing up, during Greene’s observations on speculative physics. Elsewhere, the ensemble moves, almost innately it seems, as they clap the intricate polyrhythms of the “Augurs” section in Stravinsky’s score. Later they will—somehow—vocalize its different passages.
In light designer Robert Wierzel's more atmospheric moments, choreographic motifs recall Barak Marshall’s Rushes and David Parson’s Fill Up The Woods With Light as I-Ling Liu intones the words of Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa, while walking across a series of stools placed on the ground—and in midair—by her colleagues in the company.
That choreography, though delectable, still comes off contrived—but not as much as the full-cast argument blown up out of nothing several stops before. Ostensibly, it is based on the various wants and expectations contributors articulated coming into the project. After one character asks the work—and perhaps the world—to “lift us up,” another retorts, “There are five billion people on Planet Earth. And you want harmony??”
Over A Rite’s 80 minutes, we are repeatedly struck by its crisp, disciplined performances and the impressive assembly of its many moving parts. At times its gears freeze deliberately, holding performers and audience in the suspense of a character’s relived revelation. In other places, connections either seem haphazard or too obscure.
Wong, Bogart and Jones clearly take The Rite of Spring to have been a predictive work, one which in some way anticipated millions of sacrificial rites in the century following it.
Some will, no doubt, have great difficulty with the vast and certainly dark expanses between its various narratives.
Clearly, though, they’re supposed to be there. The gaps point to all the other rites they couldn’t get on stage.