Riedel Dance Theater
Ariel Rivka Dance
Ailey Citigroup Theater
New York, New York
March 9, 2013
In Violent Circles (The Rite of Spring) (Riedel)
Vashti (Ariel Rivka)
-- by Jerry Hochman and Cecly Placenti
The joint program of new dances by Riedel Dance Theater and Ariel Rivka Dance at the Ailey Citigroup Theater on March 9, 2013 demonstrates how fresh ideas can stimulate creative dance theater, but also how difficult it can be to translate an interesting idea into a compelling work of choreography. While both pieces, In Violent Circles and Vashti, danced respectively by Reidel Dance Theater and Ariel Rivka Dance, were promising, each would benefit from further development.
Ariel Grossman’s Vashti was by far the easier piece to watch, because it was soft and pretty and lyrical and pushed no buttons. Jonathan Riedel’s In Violent Circles was anything but soft and pretty and lyrical, and was difficult to watch because it pushed (intentionally) multiple buttons. In the end, both dances appeared somewhat muddy, but for different reasons: Mr. Riedel’s piece lacked clarity and seemed to be making too many points at one time (although the intellectual undercurrents are intriguing); Ms. Grossman’s piece, on the other hand, came across as making its feminist point clearly, but without the visual or thematic variety necessary to make the dance more than just pleasant to watch. [It should be emphasized that these dances are two separate works by two separate companies that happened to be sharing a performance program. That having been said, since they were on the same program, relative (though limited) comparisons are somewhat inevitable. Additionally, although both of us attended the program independently, we came to the same conclusion about the pieces, and decided, under the circumstances, that it made more sense to submit one joint review than two separate but essentially identical ones.]
Mr. Riedel’s piece opened the program.
In Violent Circles is choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du Printemps”) which premiered at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris a century ago. [It is a source of continuing dismay that neither of New York’s major ballet companies, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, have mounted, or revived, works of their own to commemorate the score’s 100th anniversary.] It is as billed: violent. It is also a very different dance application of the Stravinsky score from what we have previously seen. Where other choreographed interpretations (Paul Taylor’s version being an exception; we’re sure there are others as well) focus on the ‘tribal’ or the ‘ritual’ or the ‘sacrifice of the chosen one’ themes that are clearly set forth in the score, Mr. Riedel has elected to detach ‘Sacre’ from its tribal roots and plant it, instead, in a different place and time. There’s nothing wrong with that – artists reinterpret and reimagine existing works of art all the time.
However, Mr. Riedel has said (in the program notes) that his work was inspired by a 13th Century Swedish folk ballade, “Tores dotter i Wange,” and two 20th Century film adaptations of it by Ingmar Bergmann and Wes Craven. [The films are not identified, but the Bergmann film is “The Virgin Spring,” and the Craven film, which itself is said to have been inspired by the Bergmann film, is “The Last House on the Left” (“It’s only a movie…it’s only a movie”).] No mention is made of Mr. Riedel having been inspired by ‘Sacre.’ So In Violent Circles can be seen more as another adaptation of the Swedish folk tale using ‘Sacre’ as its score rather than as a choreographed reinterpretation of the Stravinsky score.
That having been said, using the ‘Sacre’ score to support Mr. Riedel’s concept works well, in part because the rearrangement for piano by Neil Alexander (who also performed the piano rearrangement live) added immeasurably to the impact of the piece, and in part because Mr. Riedel’s dance raises interesting theoretical issues relating to the relationship between the horror of inexplicable violence toward innocents and religious myth and ritual: that is, between savagery and sacrifice. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Although Mr. Riedel references his inspirational sources, he says nothing further about them. The only additional comments he makes are a description of the story as one of “brutal tragedy and brutal justice,” and an acknowledgement of the violence that will be portrayed on stage. [This is the equivalent of the warning routinely given in popular visual media, such as horror movies, that what is about to be seen is not intended for children or adults with queasy stomachs.] Consequently, audience members unfamiliar with Mr. Riedel’s sources are left to rely solely on what they can see on stage to decipher the artist’s intent – which, to us, is the way it should be.
The piece begins with two girls fighting over some sort of amulet. The audience subsequently learns that these girls, who are identified as The Daughters (danced by Madisyn Maniff and Cleo Sykes), are the children of – no surprise here – The Mother and The Father. The parents calm the sisterly fight, the family shares a meal (home life is represented by a plain bowl around which the family gathers, before which they give thanks, and into which the characters stick their fingers to remove food), The Father is the head of the household, and The Mother is the dutiful wife and the brains of the operation. The scene made us (or at least the significantly older one of us) think of the old TV series “One Man’s Family” (or, for those less ancient, “Father Knows Best”) grafted onto “The Flintstones.” The Daughters then go off somewhere (we thought to school, or perhaps to grandma’s house via a forest in which a Big Bad Wolf lurked).
On their way to wherever they were headed, the girls encounter three sinister-looking characters called The Outsiders, two men and one woman, who entice the girls, then rape, and viciously murder them. It’s that quick, that perfunctory, and that brutal.
In the next scene, The Mother (Julia Kelly) laments the girls’ failure to return home. The Father (James Brenneman III) tries to calm her, but she remains distraught. Soon thereafter, The Outsiders arrive at the homestead, and are graciously welcomed. After sharing a meal, The Outsiders show the parents an amulet, which The Mother recognizes as having been her daughters’. Certain that these strangers had killed their daughters, she convinces her husband to kill them as an act of vengeance. After intense agonizing, The Father agrees, crosses himself, and kills the strangers. The Father subsequently regrets what he’s done as violative of God’s law, and, it appeared to us, convinces himself, as he’s comforted by The Mother, that he’s been damned. He prays for salvation (or forgiveness), and apparently vows to atone.
As The Mother, Ms. Kelly was magnificent. Appropriately plain vanilla when the piece began, she exploded in torment as it proceeded – vividly choreographed as repeated physical efforts to escape the home’s boundaries and run into the wild to search for her daughters, only to be restrained each time by her reassuring (and clueless) husband. And Ms. Kelly’s entrapment of the Outsiders (partnering them in seductive dances until her husband was in a position to kill them – fascinating dances of death) was brilliantly executed. Mr. Brenneman had a more difficult road to hoe. Since his character was a combination of smug, all-knowing, milquestoasty, ‘don’t worry about it; everything’s fine’ father until he exacted revenge at his wife’s insistence, there was little emotional variety to his performance; he was just a smiling lump. But he too, became energized during his killing spree and his self-flagellation thereafter. As the Outsiders, Joshua Arnold came across as your standard operating psychotic who enjoys hurting people, and Hana Ginsburg was a vicious dragon lady. But Louis Chavez appeared to be the devilish leader of the pack: a conniving, ingratiating, serpentine little monster.
Although the piece looked straightforward and easy to understand (albeit intentionally unpleasant and viscerally repulsive), to us it lacked the cohesion necessary to tie the narrative information together. The religious references appeared gratuitous; the behavior of the characters appeared simple-minded and naïve; the characters were cardboard (except for The Mother); The Outsiders just happening to appear at the family’s home following The Daughters’ murders was too contrived, and the Spartan nature of everything displayed on stage, including most of the movement quality, all combined to make the piece look raw, primitive, stark and grainy – like a low-budget horror movie. [Considering Mr. Riedel’s stated inspiration, this may have been intentional.] That having been said, what there was, at times, was quite effective. Although the introductory ‘daughter fight’ and ‘family’ scenes lacked any sense of reality or drama, they were introductions to the main event. The murder scene looked crude, but appropriately so (again, like a horror movie). But the dance came alive thereafter, from The Mother’s anguish for her missing daughters, to the strangers ingratiating themselves with the family, to the moment that The Mother realized that the strangers they were hosting had killed their daughters, and beyond.
But having said, essentially, that ‘what you see is what you get’ and describing what we saw, we must confess, after reading more about Mr. Reidel’s acknowledged sources of inspiration, that there may have been more to the piece than just what we saw, or thought we were seeing, on stage.
The folktale that Mr. Riedel says inspired him, which is also titled ‘Tores dottrar i Wange” or “Per Tyrssons döttrar i Vänge” tells the story of why a 12th century church in Sweden came to be built and located where it was. According to the ballad (we acknowledge relying on the description in Wikipedia), the three daughters of Pehr Tyrsson (Töre or Töres) and his wife Karin, while on their way to church, are brutally raped and killed by three highwaymen. Three wells began to flow at the points where the three maidens were decapitated. The highwaymen later unknowingly visit the family farm and try to sell the girls' silk shifts. Karin recognizes them and realizes that their daughters must have been killed by the men, so she tells her husband. In a vengeful rage, her husband kills two of them, but lets the third live. When Töres and Karin ask the surviving highwayman who they are and where they came from, he tells them that they were brothers who had been sent away by their parents when very young to fend for themselves in the world, and that their parents were Töres and Karin in Vänge. Realizing that he had killed his own sons, Töres then vows to build a church to atone for his sins. The 12th Century church was subsequently built over the site of the wells.
Reading the substance of this folktale (which, research indicates, is a theme common to folktales in other cultures) clarifies what Mr. Riedel portrays on stage: the religious references in the piece make sense, as does the almost primitive nature of the way the action is portrayed. Further, it can be seen more broadly – not only as a retelling of the Swedish folktale, but as a commentary on the slaughter of innocents that happens all too frequently today. [During a pre-performance discussion, Mr. Riedel mentioned the tragedy at Newtown, MA – not as an inspirational source, but as having cast a pall on the rehearsals.]
But details of the folktale that inspired him provide more than just the cohesion that the dance itself seemed to lack – they provide a connection to, and an elaboration on, the Stravinsky score, demonstrating that Mr. Riedel’s use of the score may have been intended as more than just background music.
What is central to ‘Sacre’ (we have been using the shortened form of the original French title of Stravinsky’s score, rather than its English translation, advisedly) is the sacrifice of the chosen one, a maiden (though we’ve seen instances where the ‘chosen one’ is a boy) to a god (supposedly to the god of Spring, although any god will do). But by its root origin, a ‘sacrifice’ is the ritual performance of a ‘sacred’ obligation – the making an offering to a deity, or simply the doing of something holy. So, connecting the dots, a relationship can be seen between the medieval (the 13th Century Swedish story) and the pagan (the source ‘story’ underlying the Stravinsky score) – not only that both involve violent acts, but that both involve a connection between violence and a perceived religious duty intended to cultivate favor with a deity. Taking this intellectual meandering one further step, perhaps the point that Mr. Riedel may be trying to make is that there may not be much, if any ultimate difference between an act of savagery and an act of sacrifice. [And we haven’t begun to discuss the theological question of an omnipotent deity’s responsibility for innocent death, the darker meaning behind the dismissive observation that a deity works in strange and wondrous ways, or the possible relationships between Spring (as in ‘Rite of’) and spring (as in well), or between ‘circle’ (as in In Violent Circles) and the circle of maidens described in ‘Sacre.’ But we’ve gotten way over our heads enough as it is.]
The point of this discussion is that there may be more to Mr. Riedel’s piece than meets the eye, which we concede is a backhanded compliment. Unless you already know the source of Mr. Riedel’s inspiration, or follow the trail his program note provides, the story as choreographed just looks interestingly strange: a horror story and morality tale that doesn’t take the audience beyond the stark visions presented on stage. To the extent Mr. Riedel’s intent may have been more cosmic, he might consider providing greater clarity and more polish. That is, making the piece more than only a dance, only a dance.
Vashti is derived from a relatively unfamiliar part the story of Purim as recounted in the biblical Book of Esther. [Purim is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jews, captives in the Persian Empire, from the plot of Haman, the Persian King’s minister, to destroy them.] The story of Vashti is somewhat of an introduction to the Purim story as it is more commonly known – a prequel of sorts describing events before Esther became queen. Vashti was the wife of King Ahasueros of Persia. According to the story, at the culmination of a months-long festival of drunken revelry the king ordered his wife to dance naked before him and his drunken friends (and, depending on the source, the entire populace of the city of Shushan) to show off her beauty. [Shushan is the Hebrew name for the ancient royal city of Susa.] At great risk, Vashti refused to do participate in the debauchery, and was dismissed by the King. Subsequently, the King selected Esther as Vashti’s replacement.
Ms. Grossman’s intent, as described in the program notes, is to display this story ‘through the lens of feminism and women’s empowerment,’ by recounting the story of Vashti as one of courageous disobedience to a command that would demean her as a woman. [Vashti has been identified by many as the world’s first feminist.] As choreographed in Vashti, the act of defiance is clearly stated, as is the pleasant state of affairs when the story begins, but the development in between is limited.
The first thing you notice about Vashti is how good it looks. The dancers – Claire Cholak, Hana Ginsburg (who portrays Vashti, and who had performed earlier in the evening in the Riedel piece), Kristin Licata, Danita Shaheen, and Anastasia Perfilieva – are all dressed as if they’d stepped out of a beautifully illustrated biblical story book (costumes by Christina Kim, lighting by Jennifer Wilcox, hair and make-up by Lindsay Saier). With a live quartet positioned at the corner of the stage providing the musical accompaniment (consisting of the composer of the original score, David Homan on piano, with Mario Gotoh on violin, Nadav Lev on guitar, and Michael Nicolas on cello), the piece looked as welcome as a sweet dessert following the heartburn of a particularly unpleasant meal. And Ms. Grossman’s choreography was lovely to watch – very balletic and lyrical, with varying phrasing and sequencing setting off one dancer’s steps from another.
But after awhile it all started to look the same.
Even though it is divided into seven sections (each describing a subset of the story), and even though not all the dancers are on stage at the same time, the only variety appears to be a change of Vashti’s facial expression from happy to sad to fearful to triumphant depending on where it fits in the story’s timeline, and the relatively limited expression of turmoil and agony in Vashti’s movement. And the essential plotline – the delivery of the King’s order for Vashti to dance naked – is staged as a force emanating from an offstage bright light from which Vashti receives her command and into which she stares defiant. Nothing else happens, and any variety in the choreography is lost in the overall sense that it’s all the same, even when Vashti, in her solo, agonizes over her decision. There is no sense of what Vashti now has that she might lose; no clear understanding of what it is that she’s being defiant about (she’s given a crown – perhaps representative of the command that she dance wearing only the crown; then she reluctantly but emphatically rejects it). Even the direction of the overall movement in each of the sections appears the same in all the scenes (from upstage right to downstage left) – which may be perfectly appropriate if Vashti and her friends are all being paraded in front of the king and his entourage, but which contributes to the sense of sameness. [According to a version of the story, Vashti and her friends held their own celebration while the King and his cohorts were having theirs. If this women-only counter-celebration is what Ms. Grossman is portraying on stage (which would explain why the King’s order would be coming from a location separate and distant), there’s no reason for the staging to have the limited variety of placement that it did.] A touch of deMille (Cecil B., as well as Agnes) might have helped. And this lack of visual and choreographic variety also resulted in the sense that the piece went on too long.
Vashti is not without merit. Ms. Grossman clearly knows how to put steps together and to do so in a visually interesting way, and to choreograph movement that is lovely to watch and that enhances the already engaging appearance of her dancers. [Ms. Grossman’s roots are in both ballet and modern dance; she began her training at the Joffrey Ballet School, and her chorography, at least as expressed in Vashti, shows the influence of Gerald Arpino.] She also has a core of highly competent associates, including Mr. Homan (Ms. Grossman’s husband), whose score was rich and nuanced. But, to us, Vashti could be improved by taking more artistic liberties with the story in order to provide more choreographic and visual variety.
Although both the Riedel piece and the Grossman piece have the potential to be better than they were, this evening was intended as a display of ‘emerging’ dance companies. On that level, the dances were remarkably skillful and reasonably successful. And the fact that each dance made us think (or, admittedly, over-think), and perhaps provoked the same response in other members of the audience, was a welcome bonus. The challenge in the future, for both choreographers, will be to take these dances to a higher level.