A new dance for old news? Emanuel Gat’s The Rite of Spring gives Stravinsky a salsa take on the oldest gender saws in the book. Is Emanuel Gat’s version of The Rite of Spring a sexist work, or does it seek to expose sexism instead? If the answer is the latter, where is this sexism located (besides Gat’s choreography on stage)? Does it somehow lie only or particularly in the Latino culture, from which Gat’s overtly salsa-based dance moves are lifted? Is that the choreographer’s true statement? Or does the malady reside somewhere more generally in the human project?
Depending on your answers to that quintet of questions, Gat’s The Rite of Spring constitutes a tribute to misogyny and the most elaborate of ethnic slurs, or both at the same time. If, that is, it isn’t merely a mirror being held up to the most uncomfortable of home truths about human gender roles and sexuality.
But then, so what else is new? After all, choreographers have been outraging audiences to Stravinsky since May 1913, when a Paris audience seemingly unhinged by primal orchestration and Nijinsky’s “perverse” choreography spontaneously rioted in the middle of the ballet’s world premiere.
Perhaps things didn’t go quite that far in Reynolds Theater on Monday night–although one sensed them edging in that direction when Maya Briner’s character spread her legs for the choreographer in the center of a Persian carpet, toward the end of a cold, rigid–and certainly extended–selection process that made up the body of the work. We edged again that way at the end when Briner, the woman also ostensibly designated as this work’s “sacrifice,” was first rendered half-nude and then abandoned at center stage.
But we did so only after our patience had already been tried by what had come before.
In Gat’s small world, it appears to be men against women, from first to last. That is, after the choreography in this work actually begins, since Gat eats up over three minutes (and almost all of Stravinsky’s famous “Introduction” sequence in the process) by putting dancers in place on stage in an opening tableau. Roy Assaf and Shany Ben-Haim hug one another, to the right of center stage, with their sides to the audience. Meanwhile, a striking Avital Manu stands at center, looking distractedly off to the right. Ultimately, Briner turns her back to the audience, facing the rear left corner of the stage. Gat towers over her to one side, looking offstage to the left.
There they stand. For much longer than is useful. At least the gambit excuses the choreographer from Stravinsky’s relatively arrhythmic introduction–indeed, it seems to serve little other purpose–and into the comparatively driving cadences of the composer’s “Dances of the Young Girls.”
After this opening trial, the two men appear to manipulate the three women across the surface of a Persian carpet set on an otherwise bare stage. For the most, the quintet moves within the even narrower borders of a rectangle set well inside the carpet’s borders. The quarters are close: When they’re arrayed, the five dancers cover this inner space in two generous steps to either side and even less space from front to back.
So where’s the intimacy? Because, for a dance form purported to represent the ultimate in sexuality and seething desire, most of this quintet’s stoic machinations–intricate hand-clasp turns and twists as men and women weave in and out, constantly changing partners on a single line–ultimately resemble the elaborate cogs and slides on an adding machine, or that precursor to the modern computer, the “difference engine,” more than anything else.
The gears of the engine move smoothly enough in the early sections of the work. The three women fold the initial single line into a triangle and the men traverse its sides in fascinating moves nearly reminiscent of that ancient amusement park ride the Scrambler.
Whether or not a partner’s hands are there to meet theirs, both women and men move their hands repeatedly into the same positions. Are we to think the dance is ingrained, or possibly genetic?
Either way, given the dancers’ unchanging expressions, we’re not exactly in the presence of “the forbidden dance” here. Think Popular Mechanics instead–or those gray drones, forever working those endless miles of consoles in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. One thing seems certain: No one’s having very much fun.
For the most part, even simple gratification doesn’t seem to be the point. Though we may be watching some speculative adult mating ritual based on a theme of “musical chairs,” what we see hardly qualifies as lust. This is a job–or a process–the participants seemingly have to do. Call it a dubious game of “odd woman out”–or in, depending on the moment of the work, given the uneven gender numbers and the ever changing partners.
Apparently it’s the only game in town, since the women stand, oddly vacant, shoulders slightly hunched at one point when the men leave the stage–before resuming, with their shaken hair flailing like a Gorgon’s shortly thereafter. Whenever there appears to be a chance to leave a less-than-zero-sum game, the women stay. As do the men. Both arc out at irregular intervals. Both always return.
But are the men really in charge here? The choreographer certainly is, we assume. And though generally gears don’t get to have motives, Assaf’s character seems almost reticent to maintain contact in his trio with Manu and Ben-Haim in the middle of the work. Then Gat’s character provides the work’s only moments of true menace, looming over or just behind each woman at various points in the dance, keeping an ominously silent surveillance. When Briner’s character presents herself to him, a moment’s pause seems to intimate the character’s risk–or desperation–before Gat coolly walks away with another choice.
So OK, his character‘s a pig–but does that make the choreographer one as well?
Before we tackle that one, a few more notes about the choreography. Even with Gat’s triangular and other elaborations on the difference engine, the sinuous dynamic reaches a certain plateau by mid-work. Breaking up the quintet by focusing on selected internal solos, duets and trios still doesn’t fully extend the time Gat needs to cover Stravinsky’s score. Arguably, Assaf’s trio above outstays its use, even if his later work, including an aerial leap, impressed at times. Increasing toward the end, if Gat’s work feels like it’s vamping, trying to stretch the clock, most noticeably in a passage where the ensemble breaks down into five separate–solos?–that seem based on near-African reaping gestures.
If Gat’s Rite has anything to do with mating or social structure, we don’t believe the total lack of competition between the men. This alone seems to lift us out of the realm of anthropology and into a very different place. On the other hand, the women also don’t appear to be competing so much as going through very elaborate motions.
The last mate selections that Gat’s character performs lack the smoothness of the choreography to this point. Apparently being “chosen” is supposed to hurt. In his final embrace with Briner, his entertwined hands and arms pull hers back behind her head with difficulty. The moment looks painful. It immediately precedes Briner being partially disrobed when Gat’s character selects her.
The woman, breasts bared, walks slowly to the center of the carpet and sinks to the floor, her hands limp in front of her. By the time she’s there, the others have risen and abandoned her. In this culture, is a woman who’s been physically exposed a woman who is worthless, used up, to be left behind?
I am not as interested in Gat’s possible interior motives for telling the story we see in The Rite of Spring as I am in what that story ultimately adds to our knowledge about our culture, our nature, ourselves.
In this world, men and women engage in elaborate selection rituals apparently more out of compulsion than desire. Women are systemically devalued in this process while men are put in positions of power that at least some seem genuinely uncomfortable with. When a selection system has a woman reveal her sexual organs, she has no further power or worth and is cast aside. The machine has few scruples, fewer ethics and no recognizable soul. Every creature for themselves.
Thanks for the information. And the choreography, much of which was fascinating, particularly in the early sections. But if any of this Rite actually came as news to us, it might have had more value as a work of art. As it stands, this restatement of the oldest and most obvious of gender saws ultimately doesn’t add that much to our ongoing conversation about sexuality and culture.