‘Rite of Spring’ catches and sparks

  • Nine world premieres.
  • Twelve new works, including 11 of which were commissions.
  • Two U.S. premieres from artists who brought their ideas to Carolina’s classrooms along with the stage.

Carolina Performing Arts celebrated the 100th anniversary of the bold French ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” with a season of performances that revisited and re-interpreted the noted avant-garde masterpiece and garnered attention from around the world.

One person’s idea led to a season that shows that Carolina knows what the arts are at their core.

The idea belongs to Severine Neff, Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor of Music. In 2007, Neff and Emil Kang, executive director for the arts, were batting around ideas about arts at UNC, and Neff casually mentioned that 2013 would mark the 100th anniversary of “The Rite of Spring.”

Why not build a Carolina Performing Arts season around it?

The ballet – with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and orchestra work by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky – is noted as an avant-garde masterpiece, its score among the most influential pieces of music in the 20th century.

“She had a great idea,” Kang said. “That is the thing you need first. No one had started talking about it yet. We said, ‘Let’s do this before New York does it.’”

“‘The Rite’ is a catalyst for creative thought.”

The influence of “The Rite of Spring” was broad, Neff said, inspiring film scores of movies including “Fantasia” and the music of rock icons like Frank Zappa, and leading to more than 130 choreographic interpretations. Social scientists studied how the brain processes its dissonant chords and the poet W.H. Auden wrote about its portrayal of the violent aspects of spring – the “cracking open” of the earth. “‘The Rite’ is a catalyst for creative thought,” she said.

Carolina Performing Arts’ celebration hosted 12 new works, 11 of which were commissions, nine world premieres and two U.S. premieres from artists who brought their ideas to Carolina’s classrooms along with the stage.

Interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations directed by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities were led by professors around campus, bolstered by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Twenty new courses in art history, communications, comparative literature, English and music considered aspects of “The Rite.” Two academic conferences focused on the piece, one held in Chapel Hill in October (praised by the The New Yorker and The New York Times), and another in Moscow in May.

“How do we get people out of the theater to see art as not something you consume, but something with a much larger sense of purpose that goes beyond one year, one season, one moment?” Kang said. “Our goal all along has been to get people to see the art beyond what they see on stage.”

Emil Kang looks through the massive collection of news stories about the Rite of Spring season.

Emil Kang, executive director for the arts, flips through press coverage from the season. Covered worldwide, The Rite of Spring at 100 garnered more press in one year for Carolina Performing Arts than recent seasons combined.














Innovating through art

The 1913 performance at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées unsettled audiences with its unconventional smock-like costumes, dissonant score and inelegant choreography.

Toes turned in, feet fell heavy, dancers bent awkwardly and long lines were lost as the music continued to strike notes in unexpected ways that assaulted traditional notions of music. Brawls broke out in the hall, and a riot spilled into the street.

“At the end of the Belle Époque, everything was beautiful and rich and representational. Then modernism and abstractionism came in, and it must have been like a slap in the face,” Kang said.

Six years before Carolina’s season-long celebration, “The Rite of Spring at 100,” would take its mark, Kang began asking artists around the world what they thought about creating new pieces using “The Rite of Spring” centennial as a springboard.

“I have always believed that the act of commissioning new work is a very important part of our job at Carolina, that, because of us, new works of art are made. New research happens because of UNC, and our research is in the creation of art.”

This season saw the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg, The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma, the collaborative work of choreographer Bill T. Jones and theater director Anne Bogart, the Joffrey Ballet’s painstakingly researched reconstruction of the “The Rite of Spring” and more.

Throughout this season patrons have asked Kang, “What are we going to see tonight?” and he hasn’t always known. That uncertainty doesn’t always rest well with a theatergoer, but, Kang said, that was the point.

Read more about The Rite of Spring at 100 in the University Gazette.

Published May 16, 2013.