Last month, on May 21, more than 300 people rallied at the Utah State Capitol to protest the growing numbers of bans on abortions. A large banner, held by three people at the top of the stairs inside the rotunda, stated “Stop the War on Women.”
So far this year, states have passed 16 abortion restrictions or bans, including two in Utah. Representative Angela Romero was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune about her opposition to the ban: “We have no business making that decision for them.”
One way to define “patriarchy” is to say it’s a system where men make decisions for women, and in spite of decades of marches, court cases, and elections (127 women now in Congress), women’s rights seem neither secure nor protected.
This makes the decision to present another version of The Rite of Spring, a story of a woman being sacrificed, either timely or insane. Then again, staging this version on June 22, about a mile from the same Capitol where protesters gathered on May 21, could be an opportunity to change the narrative from a story of patriarchy and tribalism to an event that offers a different perspective and perhaps a less violent outcome.
Like a protest, a performance that activates a site leaves its imprints in the environment.
Our surroundings hold traces of events, in such a way that entering a certain building or crossing a certain street can recall a memorable experience that occurred years before. This is one of many reasons why there has been heightened attention brought to the term “site-specific art” over the last decade. Every location contains layers of histories, and artists have a choice to engage or ignore them. In her seminal book on site-specific art, One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon writes about “site specificity as the cultural mediation of broader social, economic, and political processes that organize urban life and urban space.” Kwon is interested in “new site-oriented practices” that “accommodate and/or trouble the construction and commodification of urban identities.” In other words, there is no such thing as “empty space,” and every environment is a negotiation between power and resources.
The Site of Rite
In some ways, the Rite of Spring has been a “site-specific” project since the early 20th century, when Igor Stravinsky was writing much of the score from a pension in Clarens, Switzerland. The view from his window presented majestic mountains that contributed to his vision of prehistoric rites.
When NOW-ID, based in Salt Lake City, presents its version of Rite this month, there will be no mountain views. Instead, the production takes place in the midst of industrial buildings, an overpass, and a landscape dominated by concrete and asphalt. The “stage” will be outdoors, on 500 West, below the 600 North overpass.
Even though there are marked contrasts in their settings, the two versions share similarities: the 1913 production featured music by Stravinsky and was produced collaboratively with painter Nicholas Roerich, who contributed to the synopsis and designed the costumes and sets, plus choreographer Vaslav Nijinksy, and the dancers of the Ballets Russes. NOW-ID defines itself as a “multidisciplinary” company and collaborators on this production include choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen, architect Nathan Webster, and lighting designer Cole Adams.
Since 2013, NOW-ID projects have occupied distinct sites, from The Wedding (2013) at the Masonic Temple, Feast (2014) at Saltair, and It’s Not cracker (2016) at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Last year, within the Great Hall of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, NOW-ID presented A Tonal Caress, a multilayered event that showcased the brilliant performance of deaf poet Walter Kadiki in collaboration with dancers Jo Blake, Liz Ivkovich, and Sydney Petitt. These same three dancers will perform NOW-ID’s Rite of Spring and will be joined by Tara McArthur. Each of these NOW-ID projects seems distinct, but their through-lines are multidisciplinary collaboration and site-specific work.
Next month however, the site is not an existing building or destination, but a “raw and off the radar space,” in the words of Charlotte Boye-Christensen: “It was so obviously right as a setting for our interpretation of the work,” she says. “We loved the industrial yet sensory nature of the space: the patina, the sounds of the trains, traffic, neighboring businesses, the rhythmic structure above and the historical references.”
Like any urban landscape, the industrial scene that’s now visible stands on top of long-gone communities and activities. Less than a mile from the site of the performance, and dating back centuries, hot springs offered respite and rejuvenation to Shoshones, Utes and Paiutes. In the 20th century, Wasatch Springs Plunge was a popular spot for decades, with water piped in from surrounding hot springs, until the building closed due to lack of attendance in 1976.
Today, as real estate prices in Salt Lake City have increased 11.5% since last year, the site for Rite seems to be a rare place in Salt Lake City that feels more deserted than oversaturated. According to Zillow, the median home value in the city is now $397,600, and there seem to be fewer and fewer undeveloped plots. Perhaps this is what Charlotte sees as “raw.” It also raises questions about who can afford to live in Salt Lake City and who is being displaced by development.
Re-envisioning a production that has, historically, pitted tribes against one another and selected a woman to sacrifice, invites questions about relevance.
Asked why another version of the Rite seemed necessary, Charlotte replied, “I have always wanted to choreograph another unique Rite of Spring. I created and staged my first version on Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 2004 but never felt that that one fully captured the savage, complex and even violent qualities of the score and I felt I could build on the relentless dynamism as well. In the Fall of 2017, I started talking to conductor Philip Mann, Head of Orchestral studies at Texas Tech University, about wanting to do a Rite of Spring in an industrial environment in Texas with a full orchestra and the majority of our students in the Dance program at Texas Tech University. Those conversations sparked a renewed interest in the score and a desire to create this new choreography on NOW-ID as well.”
Instead of a model of site-specific work where artists spend months if not years getting to know a location, this Rite is more akin to what Ashley Anderson has theorized as “site nonspecific dance.” In Anderson’s words, “dances which are compositionally realized, performed well, and for lack of a better term, ‘complete,’ can ‘move’ from site to site and retain a sense of coherence.” This kind of adaptability is required for a company that relies on commissions, and NOW-ID’s Rite will travel from Salt Lake City this month to Texas in October. A variation of the work will be presented in Richmond, Virginia in November. This is a model that’s different from artists who research the distinct attributes of a site and its communities. This kind of site-specific performance is rare, but also unforgettable. Joanna Haigood’s “Invisible Wings” stands out as an example.
Why are environmental issues important to the Rite of Spring? At the core of the Rite is a story of survival: a community must make a sacrifice to ensure a new season. This tethering of a woman’s death to environmental sustainability may sound barbaric today, but around the globe, people live in places where pollution reaches deadly levels and clean water is nonexistent. How often do we consider the ways our consumption and behaviors contribute to these inequities? Perhaps the siting of the Rite of Spring in a place that is typically overlooked or neglected could remind us of the complicit and complicated relationships we have with environmental sustainability.
In the month leading up to the dinner and performance by NOW-ID, Liz Ivkovich and I have been writing weekly posts for NOW-ID’s “Dispatch” that attend to histories, issues, and questions embedded in the Rite. In her own research, Liz analyzes how race, class, and gender influence the distribution of environmental goods and bads, and why these issues are among the most pressing concerns. We both see this version of the Rite as a rich site to investigate questions about the patriarchy, reconstruction, critical sustainability, and environmental justice.
NOW-ID’S Rite of Spring, 9 p.m., June 22, below Salt Lake City’s 600 North on-ramp.
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.
Kate Mattingly has taught and written about dance for two decades. Her writing about dance has been published in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Dance Research Journal, Dance magazine, Pointe magazine, and many other journals and publications. She has served on nominating committees such as the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards and was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC to serve on the Dance Panel determining funding for U.S. companies, choreographers, and schools. She received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and her Master’s of Fine Arts degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In May of 2017 she will receive her doctoral degree in Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.