by Susan Kepecs
One hundred years ago avant-garde art broke the back of bourgeoisie innocence. In New York, the Armory Show introduced European Cubist painters – notably Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp – to Americans just beginning to embrace the modest, democratic, industrial age realism of the “Ashcan” school most famously represented by Edward Hopper. Duchamp’s Cubist / Futurist rendering of the female form in motion – “Nude Descending a Staircase” – utterly scandalized viewers accustomed to naked ladies depicted strictly in classical repose. By 1913 you’d think the Europeans would’ve been more blasé about the new century’s creative innovations. But as testimony to the power of live performance, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – Russians recently transported to Paris – shattered the sweet dreams of the Belle Epoch, causing the upper crust to lose its cool in the brand-new Theatre des Champs-Elysées. The ballet that pulled this trigger was decidedly un-balletic – Rite of Spring, an imagined pagan ritual to propitiate the Slavic gods in which a virgin is chosen to dance herself to death, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to Igor Stravinsky’s unprecedented, explosive score.
Lacking modern recording tools Nijinsky's choreography was lost, though the score was used by dozens of twentieth-century choreographers, including Martha Graham and Pina Bausch. And in 1987, in Los Angeles, the Joffrey Ballet staged the full ballet, painstakingly reconstructed from dispersed scraps of information. Now, in its centennial year, homages to Rite of Spring are popping up like daffodils. One blooms in Madison next weekend (May 3-5), when Li Chiao-Ping Dance premieres “Riot of Spring” in Overture’s Promenade Hall. The similarities to Nijinsky’s ballet will be slim, but Li, a wizard of intellectual wit, says “Riot” is inspired by the “étonné moi!” spirit of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.
In an interview with CulturalOyster Li spilled a few beans – just enough to whet the appetite – about her upcoming program:
CulturalOyster: Partly because nothing shocks us any more, and partly because of today’s insidious social conformity, which I blame on Ronald Reagan, there’s not much experimentation in art any more. Is that part of what inspired you to do your own Rite of Spring?
Li: The power of the music itself is the main reason – it just coincided with the centennial. A few years ago I began listening to the music intently, and it just drew me in. The other thing is I started teaching an art historical class on classical and modern dance forms that brought my attention to the question of what’s radical, and how hard it would be to be shocking any more. I talk about Diaghilev’s spirit, I ask my students to put themselves out, to do something new and astonishing. So it isn’t surprising that I’d come around to the idea of doing a piece related to Rite of Spring myself.
CulturalOyster: There are so many attempts to honor Rite of Spring on its 100th anniversary – did you anticipate that when you set out last year to do this piece?
Li: I can’t help but be affected by the other works – it would be irresponsible not to be aware of them – but I try not to let them influence me. I brought Molissa Fenley in [to the UW Dance Department, of which Li is the current chair] for a panel discussion. She had done a solo to Stravinsky’s entire score – what an incredible feat, to sustain that by yourself – and that brought up a question for me, a chichen-and-egg thing – how much of what I’m doing with this piece is embedded in the music, and how much is memory? The story is universal, and I saw the Joffrey’s reconstruction when I was a grad student at UCLA, so the evolution of my piece began way back then.
CulturalOyster: Does your “Riot” just imply Rite of Spring, or does it bear some real resemblance to the original ballet?
Li: I could just say wait and see – but there’s some resemblance in the music. The score is still there – the skeleton of it – but it’s performed, live, by just three musicians. Carol Carlson [violinist] and cellist Maxfield Wollan-Fisher put a couple hundred hours into rearranging the music; the third musician is percussionist Sean Kleve.
For the choreography, what I did was deconstruct the idea of the “chosen one,” and then I considered selection – how people are included or excluded or part of a group or not, “the one” or not “the one.” Those elements of the original ring loudest in my piece. I appreciate diversity, I embrace it, but I know that difference is the very thing that keeps people separated. The idea of “the other” threads through the piece, and lots of people are chosen.
CulturalOyster: Is there anything shocking about “Riot”? Are you anticipating riots in the theater?
Li: Wouldn’t that be fun? I really did think about it, and I asked myself – do I want to do something shocking, just to be shocking? I went through reams of paper thinking about how to do something to get the audience to throw tomatoes at the dancers, or if we should throw tomatoes at them instead, but I moved away from that. I decided to do a more straightforward, more elegant, simpler piece. I moved away from the burden of trying to shock and just made my own rendition – my treatment of the music and how I feel it and want to move to it.
CulturalOyster: Who’s in this performance?
Li: I have some new dancers in the company, and I’m bringing in a guest, Christina Briggs Winslow – she and I danced together in a Heidi Latsky piece. Christina’s been based in New York for the last 10 or 15 years and she happens to be a visiting artist in Milwaukee right now so it’s not so far to bring her in – I’m very excited to have her in this piece. She’s a beautiful dancer, she was with Richmond Ballet and then became a modern dancer – she’s powerful, and she’s able to give me the clarity of line and athleticism and full-body movement I love.
My community group is in the piece too, you’ll see them mostly in the beginning, And I needed a lot of dancers, I wanted the impact of a large group, so “Riot” includes some of my students.
CulturalOyster: Is “Riot” a full-length work, or are there other dances on the program?
Li: “Riot” is about 40 minutes long – the length of the music, with an interlude and a prelude. There are three other pieces on the program. I’m performing a solo set on me by [experimental New York choreographer] Sally Silvers, “L’Altra Notte,” which I premiered fifteen years ago and that was it. I’ve always loved that piece, so I’m bringing it back. It fits into the overall feel of “Riot.” There’s a solo of mine, “Fin de Siècle,” that [Li Chiao Ping Dance soloist] Liz Sexe is performing. And I’m screening a piece I made for my mother called “Daughter” – you’ve seen the live work, but I made a for-camera version that recently premiered at the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival and was chosen among the “best of the fest.” I’m happy to be able to share that here.