We begin with the final Sacrificial Dance–but who is the chosen victim? A large ghost light hangs over the stage as the performers enter—15 of them—in the throes of what seems an almost involuntary passion, a painful ecstasy. Plangent chords and hellish rhythms from the last few minutes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring are sounding; 15 rectangles define spaces against which the performers struggle.
One of them, SITI co-founder Will Bond, wearing the tunic and puttees of the First World War, delivers shell-shocked testimony to the experience. Again we’re thrown a temporal shift, but A Rite is a commentary on the post-Rite century. Alongside the tropes about war are a Schoenberg scholar’s Rite ruminations and reflections on the nature of time by string theorist Brian Greene. All of which comes together as an hour-long celebration that is by turns exciting, thought-provoking, didactic, annoying and terrific fun.
A Rite is a collaboration between Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, a theatrical collective known for its ensemble-based approach, and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Theatrical boundaries easily blur; these are actors comfortable with movement and dancers hip to character-based dance. But the resultant Rite thus defies pigeonholing.
Stravinsky’s 1913 composition probably had the greatest influence on the rest of the 20th-century’s music than anything other than jazz, to which we’ll soon return.
But there are detractors, among them Severine Neff, the Schoenbergian whose witty, acerbic commentary, as excellently performed by SITI’s Ellen Lauren, gives this Rite a good shot of dramatic tension.
The music itself still has the power to surprise and confuse us, particularly when danced. In keeping with the deconstructionist nature of A Rite, it is fragmented, conveyed out of sequence in a succession of different recordings, rendered percussively by the stamps and claps of the performers, played by a jazz band and even sung a cappella.
At its best, A Rite is about boundaries, time and space the particular devils. The first part is a coming together, the characters finding different means of connection through movement and narrative, appropriately ritualized through the abstractions of dance. But a sense of alienation builds as the soldier’s troubling narrative grows more dangerous.
By the second part, which begins with the inability of the cast to reconnect with one another, collective alienation truly has set in, and with it the violence of frustration. Fred Astaire used his cane to mow down a chorus of male dancers in the bizarre title sequence from “Top Hat”; the idea is re-enacted towards the end of A Rite, as the soldier turns killer.
But technology overcomes them all: the soldier ends up trapped in a zoetrope, his likeness saved forever. The ghost light becomes a video simulacrum, swaying like the Psycho fixture.
“Nothing is difficult forever,” suggests one of the narratives, and the double-meaning of this is well-realized: Stravinsky’s Rite has become as easy to listen to as it is for musicians to play, yet stasis is also to be avoided. When a jazz band takes over the music towards the end, setting the cast to a frenzy of vintage pop-dance moves, we appreciate how quickly our culture assimilates its annoyances.