Behind the Scenes at SMU's Rite of Spring, Which Might Just Start Another Riot

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SMU students rehearse the newly commissioned Rite of Spring.
Photo by Sharen Bradford
On stage at SMU's Bob Hope Theater, a young woman is isolated in a tiny, rolling greenhouse. The smallest of its stagemates, this transparent prop is only a few feet tall -- too short to allow her any comfort. So she writhes, pressing her arms, chest and neck into the cell's membranous sides.

Outside of the chamber, dancers in provocative private school uniforms -- skirts, ties and knee socks -- tug and pull their bodies in collective frustration. They sigh and weep, lurching through the curves of their backs. Like a hive of bees surrounding a newly added queen, they seem violent and desperate, wanting and unmanaged.

Then, he enters: a golden marionette that will tip the scale of power and control. Put in motion by four male dancers, the puppet resembles a menacing, ankle-biting C3PO. He climbs the girls' bodies with forceful clunkiness. He presses and heaves into them as the tribe circles and moves around the shiny demigod in a transfixed state of hormonal worship. Finally, the robot selects her: the isolated point of their social frustration. And that's when things start getting cyber-rapey at SMU's newly commissioned Rite of Spring.

I imagine Nijinsky, the famous choreographer often linked to Rite's opening-night riots. He's watching his vision brought to life on stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The work, years ahead of its avant-garde nature, isn't going over well. The audience shouts in rebellion. Items are thrown. People leave their seats in protest. Nijinsky looks terrified.

I survey this version and its young cast and am uncontrollably flooded with a mental newsfeed, bombarded with stories of violent, shared culpability via social media. I grow a little terrified. Christopher Dolder, the show's dramaturge, who should be terrified, is watching rehearsal one row up. He seems energized by its controversial antagonist.

"It's so topical, and it's going to push so many buttons. People will walk out," Dolder tells me, wide-eyed. His enthusiasm is a nervous blend of joy and uncertainty. I sense he's the type who gets excited by tornadoes.

"It depends on how people see That Puppet," he continues, now in a softer voice. "I mean these are their children."

With the cast on break, the tiny monster anchoring this chaos is unmanned, lying flat and lifeless on the ground. Rite's new choreographer, Dutch artist Joost Vrouenraets, chose the marionette as an emblem of social media's influence and of the power we willingly hand over to technology.

"If they drop the rods, the puppet will fall," Vrouenraets says.

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Photo by Sharen Bradford
That's a central irony of this work's thesis, and one Vrouenraets hopes to express through this production, which is poised to be the most controversial dance performance in SMU's history. Raised in the south of Holland, a geographical hold-out of Catholicism in an otherwise protestant region, Vrouenraets draws passion from religion's history and how it has defined symbolism and expressions, rituals and attitudes across time and distance. But more than that, he's transfixed on its impotency in 21st century culture.

While a century ago the church drove influence, Vrouenraets believes that power has shifted. Now, he says, we satisfy our vanities and desires to manipulate through technology, where there is no diocese. In the Twitterverse, the ability to influence is the only hierarchy. If we put down our iPads, social media would go limp like this golden puppet.

Vrouenraets always assumed he'd recreate Rite of Spring with a professional dance troupe. That almost came to fruition in Europe, but the project was lost when funding fell through. Then SMU contacted him. Meadows School had commissioned a piece from Joost six years ago and liked the results, so they asked him to return to Dallas and summon a new Rite of Spring in honor of its 100 year anniversary.

Initially, he had concerns.

"I thought, 'Will I be able to ask the same things of them?' Then, I realized: It's better. Young dancers that are in the spring of their life, in the spring of their dancing career. They're just under there," he says, pointing down at his flattened hand, palm facing the floor, "and yet to come out of the ground." Plus, he says, it "took balls" for a private, religious university to ask for this collaboration.

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There's an added feeling of relevance here, as I watch this cast of young performers embody this philosophy. All undergraduate dancers, the oldest on stage was born just after 1990. Every milestone of their lives has undergone online documentation and public peer review. They've had iPhones since high school. Texting since middle school. They've been steeped in this social subject matter since grade school. They -- better than any of us -- understand the dangerous dynamic it can summon. They understand the pressing nature of that small, golden robot.

In this performance, as in the original, the selected young girl dances herself to death, completing the spring ritual. It's a task split (based on the night) between two tremendous talents, sophomore Hattie Haggard and senior Julie Kaye.

This dance, while divined from terror, is beautiful and emotional, and serves as rebuttal to the tyrannical manipulation occurring onstage. The moving set of greenhouses, like the one that formerly held the girl captive, are pushed back, leaving her alone to fulfill her exiled destiny. She dances, wild and honest, clutching the air and herself with a desperate, genetically-charged certainty. It's the immutable act of a young woman discovering the power, and failure, of her own voice, as it exists away from the tribe. Just as she did 100 years ago.

The Rite of Spring is the second half of the night's programming for the Meadows School Spring Dance Concert, running Friday, April 12 through Sunday, April 14. The first half of the show is a combination of Balanchine's Valse Fantaisie, a pas de deux by visiting Artist-in-Residence Adam Hougland, and the premiere of In the City, a new work by faculty member and noted jazz dance artist, Danny Buraczeski. It takes place in the Bob Hope Theater (6101 Bishop Blvd.). Tickets cost $7 to $13. It will be repeated for one night, on May 1, at the Winspear Opera House, where it will be given live, orchestral accompaniment as part of the Meadows School annual fundraiser, "Meadows at the Winspear."

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