Art Works Blog

A Fresh Look at The Rite of Spring

A Rite of Spring at One Hundred brochure, featuring an image of Béjart Ballet Lausanne performing Le Sacre du printemps. Image courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts

This morning, the NEA announced 928 new grants, totaling $77.17 million in funding. Congratulations to all our new grantees, and thank you to all who applied!

To celebrate the announcement, we're taking an in-depth look at Carolina Performing Arts/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which received an Art Works grant to support their upcoming festival, The Rite of Spring at One Hundred. Designed to commemorate the centennial of the iconic ballet, the festival will explore The Rite through 12 new commissions by 20 collaborating artists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, and pianist Yefim Bronfman. The NEA grant will specifically fund new work by puppeteer Basil Twist and a collaboration between choreographer Bill T. Jones and artistic director Anne Bogart. We spoke via e-mail with Emil Kang, executive director of Carolina Performing Arts, about the legacy of this once-controversial work, the genius of Igor Stranvinsky's score, and why art makes the world worth living in.

NEA: Can you talk about why you think The Rite of Spring has become such a seminal work?

KANG: The riotous 1913 premiere is legendary. The Rite of Spring upended everything the bourgeoisie thought they knew to be art. The savagery of the music and movement violated all the concepts of beauty, tone, and harmony.

Stravinsky's use of incongruous and asymmetrical rhythms that lacked traditional musical resolution caused the listener to become uncomfortable. This dissonance with its emphasis on rhythm instead of harmony, combined with [Nicholas] Roerich's outrageous costumes and [Vaslav] Nijinsky's "anti-ballet," was shocking in its time and remains a hallmark of artistic innovation. The New York Times ran a quote in the 1930s that said something to the effect of The Rite of Spring being to the 20th century what Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was to the 19th century.

NEA: The Rite of Spring has been artistically explored by everyone from Disney to Charlie Parker. What do you think it is about the piece that lends itself to interpretation?

KANG: While Nijinsky's 1913 choreography quickly fell from the public eye following the premiere, Stravinsky's score was performed again and again. The genius of The Rite of Spring, with Stravinsky's revolutionary use of phrasing and lack of resolution, forces the listener to pay just a bit more attention. It is also unsettling and disturbing. This characteristic keeps the music feeling new and lends itself to constant reinterpretation. Even if you've heard the work 100 times, the next time still sounds like the first!

NEA: How did you go about choosing the artists that have been commissioned for this project?

KANG: Planning for the project began during the 2007-08 season. We began with many artists with whom we've already had a relationship. We started with informal "backstage" conversations that led to a series of more formal conversations. We must have had hundreds of conversations with artists all around the world. From these, a few visionary ideas naturally emerged.

NEA: How do you hope The Rite of Spring at One Hundred will contribute to the work’s legacy?

KANG: Our goal isn’t necessarily to witness the creation of the 21st century’s version of The Rite of Spring. We are simply paying tribute to this masterpiece by supporting the creation of 12 new works that re-imagine The Rite and still can stand on their own as individual works. We see our role, much like Diaghilev did in his day perhaps, to bring artists together to create great art. In that context, we feel great responsibility in our work.

NEA: The Rite of Spring is frequently cited as a work of artistic innovation, a concept we spend a lot of time thinking about at the NEA. What is your definition of innovation, and why do you think it’s important to the arts?

KANG: To me, the idea of innovation is rooted in the celebration of failure. I believe great art, like many great human achievements, often emerges from failure.

NEA: How do you balance the need to preserve the artistic canon with the need or desire to create new works?

KANG: This may sound overly philosophical but I don’t believe we ever achieve balance. We are in constant search of it. Each engagement, commission, and presentation can be seen as a reaction to another. That is why the most distinctive performing arts programs have an artistic personality that extends beyond genre, theme, and culture. For this celebration we are both preserving the canon and supporting the creation of new work.

NEA: If you could ask Stravinsky one question, what would it be?

KANG: I would like to understand what he thought of and how he balanced the past and the present in his compositions. As humans, I believe we consistently struggle with remembering the past and being in the present, incorporating tradition in contemporary life.

NEA: How would you define the artist’s responsibility to the community?

KANG: Artists are part of a community. While in some sense I believe an artist's responsibility is no different than anyone else's, an artist’s work serves as an important chronicle of our time and place.

NEA: Conversely, what is the community’s responsibility to the artist?

KANG: Our responsibility is to protect, value, and defend forms of human “productivity,” such as art, that are not driven by the profit motive. This is what makes a world worth living in. This is our responsibility to the artist.

NEA: What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?

KANG: It means that art does indeed make a world worth living in.

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