PRINT November 2007



ABOUT A THIRD OF THE WAY into Yvonne Rainer’s AG Indexical, with a Little Help from H. M., which premiered at Dance Theater Workshop’s “Sourcing Stravinsky” program in the spring of 2006, the dancer Sally Silvers rolls a television monitor onto the floor. Watching it, she tries, comically, to imitate the saraband of George Balanchine’s Agon. Thus Rainer showed her audience how she remade Balanchine’s late-modernist ballet—by depending on video documentation instead of a dancer’s kinesthetic memory. It’s worth noting that the saraband is danced by a male dancer in the original, which uses “four boys and eight girls” in a suite of baroque dance forms updated in Stravinsky’s serial score. Rainer, for her part, worked with four women (only one of them a ballet dancer, the others modern), the same four who are now dancing her RoS Indexical. It takes all four of them to dance Agon’s pas de deux: The three modern dancers support the ballerina, manipulating her body into the choreography’s extreme extensions. When the dancers return to the opening quartet (“four boys”) to end the ballet, Rainer makes a characteristically goofy substitution: Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme for Igor Stravinsky’s original fanfare.DTW’s “Sourcing Stravinsky” program included a lobby wall chart of the many versions of Stravinsky’s ballets. The list for The Rite of Spring included, following Vaslav Nijinsky’s, versions by Léonide Massine, Lester Horton, Mary Wigman, Maurice Béjart, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Glen Tetley, Pina Bausch, Angelin Preljocaj, and Shen Wei. And now Rainer. Not surprisingly, she changes the rules of the choreographic game, and she does it, again, with television. The Rite of Spring is famous for all sorts of reasons—Stravinsky’s rhythmically pulsating polytonal score, Nicholas Roerich’s primitivist sets and costumes, Nijinsky’s pigeon-toed, thumping dance steps. But Rite is more famous still for the scandal it caused. It has become the cliché of the avant-garde work as shocking to its audience, such a cliché that the BBC made a docudrama about Rite’s sensational opening night replete with jitters backstage and jeers out front. Rainer’s substitution of the TV program’s sound track for Stravinsky’s music as RoS Indexical’s score signals her intention to mock the hallowed status the scandal bestowed on the ballet. Still, the music is audible over the ruckus, and Rainer’s dancers replicate enough of what we know of the original choreography to make it clear that RoS Indexical is also an homage—to Nijinsky, to Millicent Hodson’s scholarly reconstruction of his choreography, and to the Joffrey Ballet and Finnish National Ballet dancers who have made it comprehensible. But Rainer has no stomach for the primitivist fantasy of the Chosen One, a virgin whose sacrifice supposedly guarantees the stability of man and nature. Could this be why?: When Massine’s 1930 version of Rite premiered in America, Martha Graham danced the Chosen One, about which she later said, “I’ve always felt that if you become an artist, you are the Chosen One.” Aargh! —DOUGLAS CRIMP

Rehearsal for Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2007. From left: Sally Silvers, Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, and Patricia Hoffbauer. Photo: Paula Court.

ROUGHLY TWO YEARS ago I was in London visiting a friend who, for some reason, had recorded this BBC dramatization called Riot at the Rite (2005), a fictionalization of the making of The Rite of Spring. All the characters in the historical episode appear in it, from Stravinsky and Roerich to Nijinsky, and the story culminates on that night in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris—with the dance performed for the BBC version, remarkably, by the Finnish National Ballet. The perspective cuts back and forth throughout between the stage and the riotous audience, which is fictional here, of course, but attempting nonetheless to replicate the tumult that ensued when people first heard the music and saw the very unexpected dancing. Watching this, I was so turned on by the program’s score: I thought, My God, I want to make a dance for the Rite using this sound track, with all the yelling that drowns out the music. As it happened, RoseLee Goldberg had approached me about contributing to Performa 07, hoping I might perform an earlier piece of mine, This Is the Story of a Woman Who . . . (1973). I simply couldn’t do that—too many things in it have disappeared, like some of the improvisations by John Erdman and me. But I had already obtained a DVD of the BBC program, and the four dancers with whom I’d worked the year before on a re-vision of Balanchine’s Agon (Pat Catterson, Emily Coates, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Sally Silvers) were available and eager. RoseLee agreed to produce a new piece, so I began to work on what became RoS Indexical.

I’ve lately gone through many terms, trying to describe this revamping of an earlier work like The Rite of Spring. I wouldn’t say that I’m doing a remake here, in the sense that Marina Abramovic, for instance, remade performances two years ago at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I also don’t think of what I’m doing as an interpretation, which requires an original. And it’s certainly not a reconstruction. The very notion of reconstruction in this case—which, I think, is what Millicent Hodson called her Rite of Spring for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987—is a fuzzy one. Because how do we know exactly what Nijinsky’s dance was? It wasn’t filmed. Relying on photos, drawings, and hearsay, we can create only an imagined approximation. That said, I must pay tribute to Hodson: She worked on Rite for fifteen years. Some of the original dancers were still alive. She was able to interview Marie Rambert, Nijinsky’s assistant, and studied her notations. And when I saw her work, it certainly had an air of authenticity—the costumes had been carefully replicated, and the surging tone of the dance matched what we have come to imagine. But the questions persist. Historical memory is so very questionable. To incorporate that questionability is part of my project here, and it’s part of the fun—after all, even the Finnish National Ballet’s performance is mediated, modeled only on Hodson’s Rite, even differing in many details from that 1987 version. I’ve been using the term re-vision to describe what I’m doing: It’s my vision, bringing all these matters of re-creation, remaking, reconstruction, history, and faulty memory overtly (and covertly!) into play.

In certain ways, this production of Rite would seem unusual for me. I started out in the 1960s and ’70s making fun of music with dance—I once had twelve people running around in formalized floor patterns to a grandiloquent section of Berlioz’s Requiem—and I’ve even called myself a “music hater” in an essay. In RoS, on the other hand, my dancers begin by dancing on the beat, approximating some of the movements from Hodson’s 1987 production. But it’s important that the four dancers I’m working with are very different in age (from thirty to sixty years old), technique, and individual history. They are not a traditional ensemble, and, in turn, each one is very different in the way she projects and, with relative ease or difficulty, executes the same material. There is a disparity in the look of the dancers—and so a kind of distantiation is created, you might say, from any notion of unity and harmony. A knowledgeable spectator will, I hope, have a very complex experience at RoS: It may evoke flashes of what you think the original was, or of memory of other versions of the dance, whether Pina Bausch’s or Michael Clark’s. I hope it will create a many-layered experience of dealing with your own knowledge, expectations, and associations, with all these fractious elements suggesting the very impossibility of an authentic template.

And then, when you reach the second half of the piece, you’re having to laugh that it’s all blown apart, with history and authenticity going to the dogs. Since we’re working with the dance as it appeared in the BBC program, sometimes, when the camera cuts away from the stage to the audience, my dancers retreat to an ordinary couch onstage, sitting on it, or using it choreographically. Also, the set designer, Joel Reynolds, devised sixteen perpetually twisting banners with text on both sides, which unfurl at the very beginning of the second half. These thirty-two words deal with memory, decay, and nostalgia, from the emotionally charged to the banal, from suffer and terror and glories to lunch and sofa and aargh—as in, there are the glories of recorded history and then the audience’s possible reaction, “Aargh, give me a break.” Finally, at the very end, entirely different source material appears, derived from the films of Sarah Bernhardt and an HBO special by Robin Williams. The man is a kinetic genius. Most of his physicality is obscene, of course. But that is what is so funny: seeing these dancers take on all kinds of gestural material that departs radically from what we might think The Rite of Spring was about. I think of RoS Indexical as both pedagogy and entertainment, a kind of pedagogical vaudeville. Nijinsky and Stravinsky may well turn over in their graves. But then again, they might just giggle in spite of themselves.

In fact, what originally intrigued me about using the BBC sound track with the audience intervention was the possibility of reseeing the work in terms of its effect on an audience, but also of retrieving Stravinsky’s masterpiece from the pantheon. I’ve been very aware of how my work is in a continuum of modernist and postmodernist moments of rupture. And certainly, The Rite of Spring was one of those moments where the conventions of ballet and Western harmony were totally challenged, torn apart. But today Rite is an entry in the pantheon of dance history, and Stravinsky’s music has also achieved that canonical status—and so I’ve sought to bring it down to earth both historically and aesthetically. It is the earthiness, you might say, of both the dancing and the sound track that hopefully makes you deal more critically with ideas of authenticity and beauty, even while I create a kind of homage. (I always like to have my cake and eat it.) It’s about having a public conversation with your antecedents, foregrounding that fact rather than submerging it as if everything you do comes out of your own unique imagination. That’s never the case with me. One can’t escape history, even when so much work is unconscious in that regard; you can—and must, I add with a little trepidation—always relate the present to the past.

As told to Tim Griffin

RoS Indexical was shown at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, and at Tanz im August (Dance in August) in Berlin, and will have its US premiere on November 18–19 as part of the Performa 07 biennial in New York.