It takes a bold soul to approach the works of Igor Stravinsky. Only the most adventurous and sometimes reckless musicians approach pieces like Rite of Spring, taking on the intense difficulty of the tonality, the meter, and the rhythm of oddly accented notes.
At times the music can sound like little more than an assault on the ears, given how disjointed it is. Stravinsky wrote in his autobiography that the first bars of the introduction caused “derisive laughter”. Accounts vary on what happened, but regardless of intent or origin, 40 or so people were ejected due to (depending on the version) a riot or a brawl. Either people felt mocked by the music, or were so struck by the “ugly” ballet, such a departure from the norm, or otherwise.
Now our intrepid friends at Pointless Theatre Company are bringing it in a brand new form to the DC stage. I got a chance to chat with several of the creative team about their approach and work on this project thus far. Artistic Director Patti Kalil, Director Matt Reckeweg, Choreographer Kathy Gordon, Lighting Designer Mary Keegan, Master of Puppets Amy Kellett, and Dramaturg Medha Marsten all took some time to answer my questions regarding this difficult piece of work.
So don’t get me wrong, I actually LOVE Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring…but how did you come across the idea to re-imagine this?
Patti Kalil: We are always interested in ballet as a form, and in particular ballets that can provide visually rich and vivid stage images. Rite of Spring is musically captivating and jarring no matter how many times you listen to it. It feels impossible to “get used to” and its narrative is consistently moving. The original production was not well-received, to say the least, and yet it has become an iconic piece in both dance and music history. The boldest work is always the last to get its full due recognition, and Matt and I have always been nostalgic for these older works that once shook social and cultural norms. We adapted the story to become more contemporary in its context and hope audiences feel challenged and entertained.
What are the challenges of directing such a multidisciplinary piece?
Matt Reckeweg: Pointless’ mission is to smash the boundaries between puppetry, theatre, dance, music and the visual arts. Including all of those disciplines in one show is not enough to live up to that mission, the key phrase being ‘smash the boundaries.’ Our aim is to create productions that challenge the audience’s perception of what artists in those disciplines do- dancers that puppeteer or designers that choreograph. The challenge of fitting it all together in a way that clearly tells a story is on the director’s shoulders. As a director, I find myself having to think like a musician, choreographer, and designer all at the same time.
Matt, could you tell me a little about your directing background?
Matt Reckeweg: Most of my directing has been with Pointless on shows including Minnie the Moocher (2013), Sleeping Beauty (2014), Doctor Caligari (2015), Hugo Ball (2016), and last spring’s .d0t: a rotoplastic ballet. I am mostly interested in creating original work and am drawn to productions that use spectacle to tell simple stories in highly stylized and complex ways. Patti and I founded Pointless right out of our undergrad, and, with the company, I’ve directed, written, choreographed, and designed. While I went to school for acting, I always had a love of music, dance, stagecraft and design. Directing has been a way to exercise all of those skills and I try to conceptualize how each of those disciplines will be utilized in every show I direct.
Will the performance only be 33 or so minutes long, or are their sections between each movement of the ballet?
Patti: The performance will be about 33-40 minutes. We may add a handful of silent beats and weather-related soundscapes. The original score is harsh and sporadic, with a darkly poetic story that moves quickly. We hope to really emphasize the ensemble’s environment as a place with extreme, desolate weather. We have no intention on editing or cutting Stravinsky’s work. Rather than extending it, we are choosing to superimpose a few storytelling elements in the sound for our audience to better immerse themselves in this world.
Rite of Spring
Produced by Pointless Theatre
April 27 – May 27, 2018
Details and tickets
How do you approach the staging – music first or story first?
Matt: It’s a back and forth. Of course, we knew the music before conceiving of the show and the intensity of the score has been the main source of inspiration. I spent a few months just getting familiar with the score’s instrumentation and musical phrasing. I listened to the full piece at least once a day (I thank my housemates for putting up with it).
Before rehearsals, Patti and I drafted the story in really broad strokes, giving ourselves the main plot points but intentionally leaving holes to be filled by performers and the design team. After we had a good sense of the basic story arc, I started placing the parts of the story we knew on top of the musical phrase I thought would best serve the moment, leaving us with a skeleton that’s been the starting point for rehearsals. I should also mention that our choreographer, Kathy Gay, has been instrumental in fleshing out that skeleton. After I’ve had the chance to communicate the intention of the moment to the performers, and once I’ve gotten the stage pictures up and moving to the music, Kathy has come in to add more complex dance and gesture to the structured staging.
Kathy, how do you go about translating music into movement?
Kathy Gay: When I hear a piece of music I see shapes and patterns and the tempo of the movements. The way it makes me feel plays a huge part and I let that be the guide in creating the choreography because every single move should have intention and emotion behind it. I’d rather see something ugly with raw emotion behind it than a beautifully extended leg and a blank face. Most of my work is created in the room with the performers there working at a fast pace with lots of trial and error.
The music for Rite of Spring is not easy – what have been some of the challenges of choreographing this show for you?
Kathy: The music is so complex and mostly uncountable so whereas normally I would have every movement set to each count it has been interesting for this piece to not have that structure and still have all the cast on the same page. Every time I listen to it I hear something new.
What were your influences are for the choreography?
Kathy: I am inspired constantly by Martha Graham, Pina Bausch and Matz Ek so I have no doubt there are echoes of their work in my own. Rituals play a huge part within this piece and looking at how different groups of people around the world perform them and how they became building blocks for the rituals in the performance. Water is a key theme and finding ways to mimic its movements through a dancer’s body has been very exciting, and of course the beautiful Choreography from the original ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky with its sharp and rhythmical beats, turned in and flexed feet and precise and angular body shapes.
Also…on that note…what is the story of Rite of Spring. I only ever remember the moment where someone dances themself to death…ceremoniously.
Matt: Much of our story is an adaptation of the original Nijinsky ballet, where yes, a woman dances herself to death. Early on when Patti and I were first discussing the idea of staging a new Rite of Spring, we looked to these “sketches of pagan Russia” with some skepticism. We were uninterested in creating a faux-religious dance of some imagined “primitive” group, but still drawn to the themes of sacrifice, environmental fertility and group-mind.
In the original, the group is celebrating the arrival of Spring, culminating in a fate-chosen human sacrifice. Approaching this piece now, in the midst of an environmental crisis, inherently changes our understanding of the original story. In our current time the cyclical nature of the seasons is less and less certain. We started to ask ourselves, “What if spring isn’t a given? What if instead of celebrating the arrival of Spring, our story begins with mourning the loss of Spring?”
This led us to set our story in the future, post environmental collapse, where our group lives in an oppressive desert landscape. The action revolves around the potential escape from this harsh reality, when a prophecy is delivered- if the group can make a sacrifice, spring will return. Placing the selection of the chosen sacrifice in the hands of the group, instead of fate, seemed to open up opportunities to explore human desperation and the ugly side of human survival. I won’t give away who is chosen, but I will say that ultimately the piece is a statement on the way we as humans have not prioritized future generations when it comes to solving our environmental crisis.
What’s something you enjoy about this piece as you continue to work on it?
Matt: The skill level of the cast and creative team is truly impressive. I’ve been blown away by the artistry each person has brought to the project, and the overall commitment to excellence has made this piece a joy to work on.
Medha, as the dramaturg, what sort of work have you been doing on this production? I find that “dramaturg” tends to be a rather confusing term for theatre-folk and non-theatre-folk alike, so what sort of projects do you undertake in Rite of Spring?
Medha Marsten: True! The role of the dramaturg can differ by production. As the dramaturg on this production, I am working with the story creators, the design team, and the actors. I have been working with Matt and Patti on the evolution of the story. The music is about 35 minutes long, and we have quite a story to tell. Matt and Patti created an intriguing and complex story, and 35 minutes is not a lot of time. I have been working with them to work through and sometimes simplify the moments and themes of the story. We want to make sure the audience walks away thinking about what they have seen, but not being overwhelmed or confused.
We have also created a futuristic society in the world of this play, so I have been helping us as a creative team to establish the rules of this world. Finally, I have been working with the actors to think about the ways in which we as humans react to our environment. We have had lengthy discussions about religion, rituals, rites, and order to establish the way in which the society in our play has reacted and adapted to the harsh environment.
Amy, what is the role of puppets in this production?
Amy Kellett: There is only one true puppet in the show currently – the Sage – she’s an ancient member of the group and has a mystical quality about her that Matt and Patti thought would be enhanced by being in puppet form.
What is your general approach to puppet design?
Amy: I suppose first I gather information – what the puppet is supposed to represent, how large it wants to be, how many puppeteers will be available to make it come alive, and what particular ways it needs to move or any specific actions that it’s important for it to be able to make. Then I work out how to make it move and look like that, sometimes through trial and error and sometimes through thought or researching mechanisms that have already been developed.
About how much labour goes into the construction?
Amy: Lots! I’ll let you know when I’m done! I’m working with a couple of materials I haven’t used before so I’m not sure how long it will take me to troubleshoot and finesse those elements.
Did you collaborate with [costumer designer] Frank Labowitz on creating a unified design between human performer and puppet?
Amy: We’ve so far mostly collaborated concerning the costume of the puppet which Frank is creating to match his designs for the human characters so that they all belong in the same world.
For you, Mary, what is the role of lightning in telling this story?
Mary Keegan: I would say that the role of lighting in this show has to prioritize storytelling. We’ve chosen to present a strong narrative and to do so wordlessly. This, of course, is an immediate storytelling challenge, so I think as a designer I have to be that much more conscious of what we’re communicating to the audience from moment to moment. I find that posing one distinct formal challenge often creates just enough of a rubric to open other doors for creativity and freedom. So while the structure of storytelling confines what lighting should be doing, the question of how it does so is a little more open.
Communication is the ultimate goal, and that can sometimes mean that the lighting becomes specific and environmental, i.e. the lighting creates a naturalistic interpretation of a desert in the early morning. At other times the storytelling is best served by an abstracted approach, where the lighting is a reflection of mental and emotional states of the characters rather than their direct environment. So because we have an ultimate priority of what light is doing (storytelling), we can cheat a little with the consistency of how we do it.
For you, what is the interplay of music and lights?
Mary: The interplay of music and lights is such a purely expressive one. Designing for concert is such a freeing experience because there is rarely a narrative or an environment to support – only a feeling. A more standard dance performance is slightly more likely to have a narrative, but the often open nature of the space still makes it a really expressively free form to design for. Our show is dance theatre, so we do have that narrative element which makes it a little more grounded and a little less purely expressive. However, I love designing for a narrative. To ground us in a visual language, to follow the arc of a story, to create a journey are all exciting challenges. So the compromise of an expressive form in a narrative mode is a really fun opportunity to merge the two different approaches.
I think you’re a ways out from tech, but do you have any cool ideas for what you want to do in Dance Loft?
Mary: It’s great to be in a space like Dance Loft because the grid was designed with dance in mind. The space is already equipped with floor to ceiling booms which is a huge advantage when working with dance; those are your moneymaker positions. It’s exciting to work in Dance Loft as well because of the depth of the room. We’re employing distancing tactics with the visual presentation that often isn’t as effective option for a small space. So we get to make that crucial distinction between audience and performer that usually plays better in a large space, but we maintain that intimacy that’s so enchanting in a small space.
What are the pros and cons of staging the show in Dance Loft?
Matt: Dance Loft offers the largest playing space we’ve ever had to work with. Coming from Flashpoint, which was about a third of the size of Dance Loft, we’ve had to adjust to the shift in scale. This is both its pro and con. On the plus side, we can be more expansive with how our performers move on stage, allowing the dance to gain momentum and the pantomime to be more exaggerated. The down side is designing for that large of a space takes a lot more effort and money. Filling the space, something that was easily achieved in Flashpoint, has been the biggest challenge.
How often do you think of the dinosaurs from Fantasia? I imagine it’s many peoples’ first exposure to Stravinsky, or even Rite of Spring. I daresay I think about it more often than I should.
Matt: It definitely was my first exposure to the music and I often tell people that Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ is my favorite movie. It hasn’t made too much of an impact on the show, but maybe there’s room for a dino or two? I’ll talk to our puppet designer about it.
Kathy: Actually I don’t. I have fond memories of Fantasia from my childhood but mostly of the pieces from the Nutcracker, the dancing Hippos and of course the wonderful piece with Apprentice Mickey and the magical mops and buckets.
Do you expect there to be any riots? I imagine the beau monde of DC theatre entering full on class warfare.
Patti: Maybe more like extremely in depth discussions on environmental threats, climate change and human sacrifice? This piece will hopefully bring people together with the notion we all share the earth and are collectively responsible for its irreversible damage. We can also come together in efforts to reconstruct a better future for the next generation.