May-June 2013 | EditorSpeak

Those Long-Ago Days of Scandal

May 29. One hundred years ago. Paris. As the story goes, an opening night audience became so incensed at what they were hearing and what they were seeing that they punched each other and threw chairs. At the ballet. How scandalous!

The legend of The Rite of Spring’s hot-blooded audience ranks up there with the best of ballet’s melodramatic moments, from Pavlova insisting on dancing through a strength-sapping fever to Emma Livry’s fatal brush against a lit gaslight. Stories from a distant past, kissed with all the romance and danger promised but never found in the typical class of pliés and scoop-necked leotards.

Rite depicts a primitive ritual in flat-footed stomping, shapeless leaping, and repetitive patterns. A nameless virgin doomed to die, a dissonant score—it was all so uncomfortable and strange. Fine society ladies were so offended by turned-in feet and sacklike costumes with a pagan flair that they fainted. How delightful!

So here we are, 100 years and numerous groundbreaking dance works later. Many ballet companies have been staging their own Rites this spring, paying tribute to one of those works of art that, like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, changed everything and everyone that came after.

Six performances, then dropped. In just a few short years, the choreography fades from memory. Stravinsky moves on to Balanchine and history. Nijinsky—the genius, the god—is heading toward madness.

But as for that night, it was a riot, a “disaster,” an event of particular mayhem even for a time when theater audiences were not restrained by modern etiquette and rarely sat quietly if they felt inclined otherwise. Imagine feeling free to express your dislike of a ballet so vocally that the orchestra is drowned out and the choreographer must shout the counts from the wings.

Sounds like a crass football crowd, right? But at the ballet? Today? “Never,” you might scoff. But the romantic in me keeps hoping. —Karen White, Associate Editor


Everyday Dance

During a recent trip to Bali, I was struck by how thoroughly music, painting, wood carving, weaving, and dance are integrated into daily life there. Despite third-world–level poverty, the arts are as essential, and as everyday, as food, water, or air.

Painters’ studios nestle between stalls selling bananas and quart bottles of petrol. The ringing sounds of a gamelan rehearsal drift out of a dark alley in a beach town.

And dance is everywhere. In temples, sacred dances are an essential part of Hindu ritual. Performances for tourists provide much-needed income for temples, communities, and performers. Dance, in many different forms, can be seen in many places.

Most remarkable, though, is how normal it is for “normal” people to dance. A taxi driver laughed with delight as he described performing a Perang Pendan ritual dance in his village of Tenganan (the only place it’s done), despite the fact that it involves men attacking one another with thorny branches until they bleed. An elderly man selling tickets to a performance put in an arresting appearance as the “grandma” character in the show.

Kecak dance features a large cast of men who provide driving rhythmic vocal accompaniment while dancing as a chorus throughout. A group of more than 100 men clearly had some professionals in its ranks, but mostly seemed to include guys who fix motorbikes, or teach primary school, or carve masks for a living. And they perform at least twice weekly.

The omnipresence of the arts in Bali made me wish dance were a bigger and more normalized part of life in the U.S. In large swathes of America, people just don’t dance. We don’t do it as part of our religious practices, or to support our communities. We hardly even do it to have fun.

We could start by helping people feel comfortable dancing. Maybe if we took a cue from Michelle Obama, whose anti-obesity campaign and viral video “Evolution of Mom Dancing” has her dancing up a storm, we’d be one step closer to that goal. —Lisa Okuhn, Associate Editor