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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ritualizing the Rite (on Yvonne Rainer's RoS Indexical and The Rite of Spring)

Scene from ROS Indexical

Yvonne Rainer on the set of ROS Indexical

Original costumes (Himalayan chorus)
from The Rite of Spring

The chorus momentarily rests

Valery Gergiev (director), with the cast of the Marinsky Theatre Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes

Yvonne Rainer (choreographer, after Millicent Hodson), with Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers RoS Indexical and Spiraling Down / RedCat (Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theater, at the Disney Center, Los Angeles / the performance I attended was the Los Angeles premiere, Thursday, June 25, 2009

By intentional coincidence, a few weeks before attending Yvonne Rainer's RoS Indexical and Spiraling Down, Howard and I attended a high definition showing of Emerging Pictures's Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes at the Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills. That film included performances of three Stravinsky ballets by the Marinsky Ballet Company with the Marinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra, restaged in 2003 from the original choreography and danced in the original costumes. The three ballets included The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, and The Wedding, all of which were high engaging reconstructions of the originals.

Of particular importance for me, however, was seeing The Rite of Spring just previous to Rainer's homage, dissection, and spoof of that great work. The day after seeing the Rainer piece, moreover, I watched the tape of the first reconstruction of Nijinsky's original, performed in 1987 by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.

From a corps de ballet of several dozens of dancers, Rainer slimmed down her company to four dancers, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, Sally Silvers, and Pat Catterson, the last of whom was replaced in the production I saw by Rainer herself, now age 75.

The tone of Rainer's version was established almost immediately by the four sitting around a card table, listening to something on head phones. They begin by humming and thrumming the overture to The Rite of Spring, droned so out of tune it is barely recognizable.

As the First Act, L'adoration de la Terre, begins, three of the women (in the original, many of the group dances were split by Nijinsky into groups of three) gather, as the old men do in the original, to celebrate the spring with the heavy stamp of their booted feet. Here, in spritely colored work-out clothing, the woman start by imitating but quickly move to other positions as, sometimes working in unison, but more often splitting apart into ones or twos, they reiterate some of the hand, arm, and head-gestures of the Nijinsky choreography. To her "indexing" of the original, Rainer adds often hilarious and touching riffs from Groucho Marx's daffy backward shuffles (remember his incredible dancing in the movies?) and Robin Williams (presumably from his Bob Fosse imitations in The Birdcage) to Sarah Bernhardt's melodramatic gestures. Every so often, the exhausted dancers—they are, after all, performing all the various chorus numbers—retire to a couch, where they temporarily rest, change from shoes to Kleenex boxes (suggesting, I gather, the various different tribal outfits of the original dancers) and appear to be deciding what to do with the dreadful audience response.

For Rainer has layered her performance to include the riots of the original. Early in their dances, various placards fall from the ceiling dangling like posters in the sky, announcing possible responses to the work. From the soundtrack of the BBC rendition, Riot at the Rite, we hear various shouts and hateful remarks, Nijinsky counting loudly to his performers so that they, unable any longer to hear the music, might continue the dance. At one point a mob of planted actors, a couple in the costumes of the original designer Nicholas Roerich, rush to the stage, demanding the company return to TriBeCa, where Rainer's New York home is located.

Certainly this historical intervention adds further dimension to the work. But the high British accents declaring their dismissal and outrage made the reactions seem arch and absurd; certainly French must have been more to the point, and, like others in the audience, I wish we might have had the "riot" performed in the original language.

The unflappable dancers, however, ultimately maintain their demeanors, bending down occasionally to return, in mime, some of the missiles presumably hurled their way. As the performers began the memorable "Dance of the Virgins," those terrifying figures who ultimately decide which of their member is to be sacrificed, Sally Silvers falls to the floor in a faint, referencing the original fall of the young woman selected to die. Throughout, Silvers humorously huffs and puffs her way through these dances, sometimes in Marx brothers style, leaving everything out that the others do except for the final position (the other two dancers are younger by at least two decades), lending her highly satiric dancing style (Silvers is also a noted choreographer) to the whole. Not to be outdone, however, the other two later fall, and in lieu of the final end of the sacrificial victim—raised in her death above the heads of the original male chorus—each of Rainer's women take turns at demonstrating their dramatic skills in dying by falling upon the couch, Silvers most riotously clumsy, with Rainer almost unable, it appears, to climb over its arms.

Yet, throughout this exhausting dance, these four women stomp, march, float through the air, twist, turn, and gesture with arms, hands, and fingers along with Stravinsky's raw, barbarously rhythmic, and often blaringly atonal chords, with an incredible energy and beauty that might almost be said to have outdo any large corps de ballets. Rainer declared at the beginning of the work that her performance might be seen as "geriatric," but if her graceful movements represent the consequences of old age, bring it on! We should all be so beautifully lithe.

Los Angeles, June 27, 2009

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