Some of the most memorable art hits at just the right moment to express the full complexity of a great changeover. The Rite of Spring, with Igor Stravinsky's score, Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography and Nicholas Roerich's libretto and design, slammed into the European consciousness a century ago with such force that the audience rioted.
Today, cultural dynamics are smaller, faster and less coherent. We don't riot; we change the channel. But artists still make tumultuous work. Two of them—choreographer Bill T. Jones and director Anne Bogart—premiere their dance-theater work A Rite at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall this weekend.
Jones has brought his company to the American Dance Festival in Durham many times. For her theater work, Bogart has collected two Obies, a Bessie and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1992, she founded her SITI Company with Tadashi Suzuki.
A work commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and Executive Director Emil Kang, A Rite is billed as a deconstruction of The Rite of Spring. It explores themes of war, science and hope, and struggles with the implications of constant change for the modern individual.
"This was really jumping off of a cliff, coming from the dance world and the theater world—although Bill's a theater whore, I will say," said Bogart in a public conversation last Thursday at the Ackland Art Museum, where the two artists were joined by Kang and UNC music professor Severine Neff.
The collaboration recognizes affinities between today and the world of 1913, while also pulling in Jones' politics and Bogart's scientific interests.
"Here we are in 1913, in a time when the paradigms of culture were shifting radically: the birth of Cubism, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Einstein's theory of special relativity. And I think we're in another paradigm shift now," Bogart said.
Jones is interested in the social contexts around Stravinsky's work. "If The Rite of Spring equals a precursor to the war, what did World War I mean to Americans and particularly to the America that is just now finding its voice, the America of people of color? I thought that a lot of those guys who left Europe after the First World War came back home and they no longer wanted to be called 'boy,'" Jones said, suggesting that a very different kind of modernizing began in the Modernist period.
"The civil rights struggle, which was going on before the war, got a boost from people having been in Europe."
On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a few hours before President Obama's second inauguration, we sat with Jones to talk about A Rite and reflect upon his career.
INDY WEEK: When Emil Kang approached you about this commission, what was your conception of The Rite of Spring and how has it changed throughout the development of A Rite?
BILL T. JONES: Emil quoted me the other night at the museum that I had said that I was terrified. That might be a little dramatic but this happens to all choreographers at some point. They're faced with the question: Do you want to step into this fire? Because everybody feels at some point in their career that they have to deal with The Rite of Spring.
I've always thought "Good for them. I don't need to do it. I'll do something else." I felt it was kind of a trap to try to reinvestigate Nijinsky's and Roerich's libretto. It was that story. The music can stand up to all sorts of treatments—witness Walt Disney and Fantasia. But there was something about the libretto and the immense spectacle that it was in its time. It changed fashion and changed the whole idea of how a theatrical spectacle can unfurl.
Are you continuing to create solo work amid all the different kinds of work you do now?
Not nearly, no. I do once in a while. I like to say now, glibly, that I dance now when I'm happy. When I'm very happy. And that usually happens in my living room when my companion is cooking and music is on that I love, or at a party with friends. I will do an impromptu solo. And they go under the title—someday I'll collect them—it's called "That Sweet Impediment to Greatness."
I love dancing to Al Green. For Obama's first inauguration, Toni Morrison asked me to do a benefit... so I danced a solo to "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart" by Al Green.
That's a great moment. And we have that moment again today. What does the second inauguration, and today being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, mean to you?
That's a fair question, on this day. I am confused. I am confused that he is being re-inaugurated on this day. First of all it is difficult to make the day pop for me. It would be easier if I wasn't here working. It's my day off. Did I wake up thinking "This is Martin Luther King Day?" No. I woke up thinking this was a day off and Rite of Spring, Rite of Spring, Rite of Spring, and I have interviews, and oh, this is Martin Luther King Day, and Mr. Obama, whom you have really given a great deal to... Why am I cool [toward him]?
Something is hurting. Something is sad. And anything I say sounds like I am beating up on the man who has become a symbol that I need and I would defend his back no matter what. But maybe it's a realization of the dreams we have—"I have a dream," that's one thing—but you better live fast and die young, right?
Heaven forbid you have a dream and you have to jump into the shit. And try to make something in an intractable situation. Martin Luther King now belongs to the angels and the ages, and his accomplishments.
Mr. Obama is very alive right now. Why doesn't he behave like an icon? Why doesn't he wave his magic wand and stand for change? Well, it doesn't happen. And is that a middle-aged man talking to you right now, about having realized finally, maybe, I can't just will it and the world will change? There is mud up to our waist. And why were you so arrogant as a young person to think it was any different for you and your era? Maybe that's what's hurting right now, on this day.
Well, you can always make new work and push at the mud, right?
Oh, you think that's what the work does? I'm not sure. That's the other thing. When we were going to make The Rite of Spring, and we were talking about Nijinsky and Roerich's sacrificial maiden, I said, before we even started the work, what's the news there for me?
The news is not about young tragedy but about the realization of aging, and the diminishing returns and cynicism. You know, April is the cruelest month, breaking up. Well, late summer is pretty cruel too, when you know the winter is coming.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rethinking Stravinsky."
See Page 2 for more of our interview with Bill T. Jones.