Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The anniversary effect: The wrong way to celebrate 'The Rite of Spring'

I've been waiting for 2013 for 10 years.

Because our society gets excited when round numbers roll by on the calendar, I knew 2013 would bring performances of the ballet "The Rite of Spring," debuted in Paris in 1913. When my high school music history teacher showed my class an old VHS tape of The Rite, I started counting the years until I could see it live. On Sunday evening, I drove to Chapel Hill to see the Joffrey Ballet mark the work's centennial birthday at the University of North Carolina's Memorial Hall.

Joanna Wozniak of the Joffrey Ballet performs as
 The Chosen One in "The Rite of Spring." 
Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The Rite narrates solstice pagan rituals that end in a sacrificed virgin. Russian choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky matched Stravinsky's abrasive, energetic music with aggressive, flat-footed stomping. Here is the first of three installments of the Joffrey Ballet's Rite:

As the familiar introduction sounded over the speakers, I adjusted myself in my seat and thought, "This is it. You're finally seeing 'The Rite of Spring.' This is happening." When the curtain raised, my body preemptively tightened, my eyes widened, I held my breath.

The wash of adrenaline never came.

As the dancers jerked and thudded across the stage, their colossal fatigue over the hype of a hundredth birthday was evident. The familiar movement was there, but the lunatic emotions that attend killing a young girl had dulled. The dancers had lost The Rite's full integrity--the ability to present a work like new to an audience who may be having their first experience with it. How disappointing.

Does it hurt art to force its laud because a number has clicked by on the odometer? I think these celebrations mean well. They intend to mark that a work has been meaningful to a group of people for an amount of time, but so many celebrations (brought on by ticket sales) simply raise a weary flag that functions as a tick on a timeline. This is still here. It hasn't died.

I was reminded of a recent conversation I had with my brother. On his birthday, I called and asked him how he was planning to celebrate. He said, "When your life is as great as mine, there's no need to mark the passing of another year." If only we could all feel so satisfied.

His answer highlighted the quiet nag I feel every time my birthday passes, a desire to report that my life has been good and meaningful. Marking milestones has its place, but it shouldn't function as a stand in for regular engagement.

I can say this easily because I'm not trying to generate revenue, but I would suggest enjoying the life of a piece as it naturally progresses rather than showing up for the occasional party. It's a treatment reflective of why we love what we love.