A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see the revered Bill T. Jones company live. They performed in College Park, Maryland, and I made the trek with a dance director of mine (Bill T. Jones being possibly her favorite choreographer, she wouldn’t miss it for the world). Although I have studied his work for a long time – in his words, “since you were a baby” – this is the first live performance I attended. It was thoroughly entertaining, thrilling, educating, and thought-provoking. I count it among the best work I have seen in my life, and certainly the best work I’ve seen of late.
A Rite works so well and yet starts from a place that seems likely to fail. The piece runs about 50 minutes without intermission and is a collaboration between Jones’ dance company and the SITI Company, a theater troupe directed by Anne Bogart (another one of my idols). The piece uses Stravinsky’s ubiquitous Rite of Spring composition as its backbone, and it delves into the personal and mystical through analysis of the score and the human condition. Given Nijinsky’s epic and tumultuously received ballet of the same name, which premiered in 1913, and for which the music was originally written (a fact that would weigh heavily on the minds of all dance scholars in attendance), the question was: how are they going to say something new? How will they avoid aping Nijinsky, who was so ahead of his time?
The dance begins in squares. The stage is taped with tiered boxes, farthest upstage there are 5, then 4, then 3, and 3 moving downstage. The cast is trapped in boxes, performing movement that is urgent and whip-like. They coil and recoil out of the floor with startling velocity. Every so often they change boxes, sometimes breaking out of the shapes only to return. Where they go and what they do there sets up the entire rest of the piece — an element largely forgotten in much of the choreography I see and something that makes this piece so striking. There is the sense that every movement has a meaning, that there are no superfluous choices. Every time a small detail emerges in focus this is cemented.
Early on two main characters introduce themselves: the soldier and the professor. The soldier is a middle-aged man who talks to us about his experiences at war. He has a sweetheart, a petite redheaded girl dressed in burgundy who acts a little like a dream-world guide throughout the dance, always there to guide him and comfort him. The professor is a middle-aged woman lecturing us about Stravinsky’s music. She is perhaps a musicologist? Her character has great control over the stopping and starting of scenes, even to the point of controlling when the music starts (after two false starts that she sternly stops by a cleverly delivered “not yet“). The soldier has no control over his environment and is even bound by it, as in a stunning scene about the nature of time where a row of dancers toss stools to each other and set up a row across the stage. Throughout the section there are moments of stillness where all the performers pause, including the soldier, as if frozen in time.
The line of stools in front was one of my favorite sections, because it allowed through layered movement, pauses, and intentional lighting a way to see an overwhelming tableau of humanity. I remember most distinctly a man in a suit lying on the floor upstage left and a Japanese girl standing tall on a stool in the downstage line. They stuck with me most clearly because they were subtle moments that when repeated lead to deeper meaning in the dance. The Japanese girl walked around the stage on the stools moved by her fellow performers. Weaving through the space to a text overlay in Japanese called “In Spring” by Shuntaro Tanikawa, there is a sense of her experience being universal despite its foreignness — despite the fact most people in the audience couldn’t understand a word of the text. The manner of her walking on stools, sometimes supported sideways by her fellow performers, lent a delicate and dreamlike quality to the section. At the end she stood high on a stool, exactly as she was in the line of stools, and proclaimed, “I was waiting… for the spring.” Her dance and her words, combined with the repetition of the moment on the stool, created a palpable sense of weight in the audience. We understood: there is meaning here.
The well-dressed man on the floor began his section from his repeated posture instead of ending there as the Japanese girl had done. Lying on the floor, he began to expound upon the scientific nature of time and space. The salient part of this is not as much what was said as the result it had on the performance: as he questioned our assumption of time always running forward, the dancers began to reenact the stool scene in reverse. The line of stools grew across the stage, the performers recreated their relationships moving as close to “in reverse” as possible, going through to the line of stools being tossed back offstage, and all the while the soldier and his girl gazing at each other from across a black distance. “Could there be infinite copies of you on infinite worlds?” the man mused, as copies of dancers slowly passed across the stage, identical in shape and movement. I recalled Vonnegut’s writings on time, especially through his alien race the Tralfamadorians. They see all of time emanating from their subjective present, and likewise exist in all moments at all times. Time to them, therefore, does not appear to be linear, nor does it move in one direction, constantly plodding forward.
At this point a “safety in numbers” theme I had been picking up on in the movement started to disintegrate, and the PTSD theme began to emerge more strongly. A series of lifts repeated,gentle and comforting at first, but becoming increasingly vicious, necessitating escape. The piece began to take on the appearance of having structure without structure, throwing caution to the wind with a Quadrille that morphed into ragtime and finally big band swing, all while keeping the foundation of Stravinsky’s score. To watch this was probably a little like watching Nijinsky’s ballet in 1913. The movement and the music together made no sense to me in concept, as everything I’d experienced about that kind of dance and The Rite of Spring score were the exact antithesis of each other. The professor kept repeating, “What do you hear in the music?” And all I’m getting out of this is that we’re all animals underneath, subject to our own base desires and impulses.
The piece goes full-circle and returns to the beginning idea of dancers in squares of light, traveling and stalling, quaking in fear from time to time (a movement quote of Nijinsky’s ballet, I believe). The soldier emerges from the group, raving and ranting, having descended into madness. “Don’t you thank me for my service. Don’t you thank me for wasting my life,” he assaults the audience. He is trying to get out of the trenches and yet he cannot. His PTSD, referenced a few times throughout the piece, has taken over him. He hoists his imaginary machine gun and screams, RATATATTAT over and over, gunning down the rest of the performers, even killing his love. In his words, “so there’s that.”
The bodies lie for more than a few moments. Then haunting melodies begin to rise, seemingly from the very walls of the space. They grow in volume and it is clear both that the performers are making the noises and that the noises go together to make The Augurs section from Stravinsky’s score. The bodies move, breathe, lift up, and move offstage, where the singing continues. The piece has come full-circle in more way than one, as this was the music (orchestral version of course) that the dance opened with. His demons resurrected and now singing to him, the soldier runs helplessly and continuously back and forth with greater and greater urgency behind a tattered drop. The singing reaches it zenith and abruptly stops, with it a blackout. We have been witness to a dream, to the insanity that war grinds into our culture, and the soldier is stuck in his nightmare forever.
This piece is crafted as delicately as a religious rite. The repetition compels the audience into feeling a sense of ritual, a comforting one at that, only to upset us at the end by the darkness to which such rites lead. It is a commentary on the progression of the past century, 1913 to 2013, one that tells us we must strike off the comfort of rite and ritual in order to see another spring.