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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

‘If not here, then where?’ Carolina takes on ‘The Rite of Spring’

Emil Kang doesn’t take credit for the idea.

It goes, instead, to Severine Neff, Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor of Music. In 2007, the two were batting around ideas about arts at UNC, and Neff casually mentioned that 2013 would mark the 100th anniversary of the bold French ballet “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,” said Kang, executive director for the arts. “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 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 to be held 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.”

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. Still to come are puppeteer Basil Twist; the UNC School of the Arts schools of dance, music, and design and production; and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

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

‘If not here, where?’

Marrying the arts and the academy is the role of a university-based arts program where performances are made on dual stages, Kang said. There’s the global stage where Carolina Performing Arts is competing with the likes of Carnegie Hall, and the academic stage, where the competition is at Duke or UCLA.

“If not here, where?” Kang asked. ”The university is not a museum. Sure, we preserve history and tradition and pass them on to young people, but we have to move always.”

People are too often caught up in the transactions of attending a performance: ordering tickets, finding parking, getting there and back, Kang said. By commissioning new works for “The Rite of Spring at 100,” Carolina Performing Arts could “encourage our community to embrace art for the brilliance of the process, not just the fun that it is.”

You can’t discount the value of a good time, he said, but that couldn’t be the goal.

“Other companies don’t have to respond to the academic heartbeat, the pulse of this place,” he said. “Here, we are obliged to.”

‘As big as basketball’

When Kang came to Chapel Hill in 2005, he said he wanted the arts to be as big as basketball. “Everyone just laughed,” he said.

Earlier last month Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser, professor of music and co-teacher of a first year seminar with Kang, introduced the Cleveland Orchestra and told the audience that Carolina Performing Arts had been on the New York Times arts page more this year than the Tar Heels had been on the sports page.

Kang, pointing to a glossy binder bursting with press clippings, said, “This is our press just for ‘The Rite of Spring.’ This is the equivalent of all the press we’d received in the past seven years total.”

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, NPR and the New Yorker have all given space to the events this year as the local community returned to Memorial Hall time after time.

On March 24, as the men’s basketball team faced the University of Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament, seats filled to welcome the Joffrey Ballet, who were performing their world-renowned reconstruction of “The Rite of Spring,” a performance which would give most people their first glimpse of the 1913 original.

Basketball-loving patrons checked scores until the final buzzer, right before the curtain went up, and then turned their attention to the stage. Captivated by the performance, the audience held applause long enough for dancers to take bow after bow.

“When I get an email from a student or an alumnus who was moved by a performance, I’ll save it, like a squirrel saves nuts in his cheeks,” Kang said. “I just need one a year,” he joked, “to keep me going.”

Carolina understands what arts mean at their core, he said. It’s why seasons like “The Rite of Spring at 100” get the green light. Kang said they never set out to make money (necessary as it is to keep the project going), just art.

“And better human beings,” he adds.

“If you pump enough information and ideas into people, one of them will light. They will spark and catch. That’s when they’ll care so much that they put all their energy and effort into something, see it through, and then make a difference somewhere.”

As the season comes to a close, Neff’s work will go on as she guides the process of turning the conferences’ proceedings into a scholarly book publication in tandem with a website to add Carolina’s contributions to the legacy of “The Rite of Spring.”

“UNC is now part of its history,” Neff said. “Any arts organization at a university like ours has to consider how its choices will impact what people learn here, and what future scholarship may come from that. The 100th anniversary of ‘The Rite’ was meant to be here.”