Arts & Culture

Uncovering the power of ritual in ‘The Rite of Spring’

6 min read

“Art is a coalescing, unifying force,” says Christine Dakin, addressing the students gathered for her weekly seminar at the Harvard Dance Center. A glance around the room confirms her statement — Dakin’s students represent a cross-section of Harvard that could not be more diverse. They are performance artists, neurobiologists, and economists. They come from several of Harvard’s Schools. They range in age, dance experience, and academic background. But all are bound together by a single work of art — Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” the famed ballet that has captivated and confounded listeners since it first premiered in 1913.

Dakin, former principal dancer and artistic director laureate of the Martha Graham Dance Company, is a visiting lecturer at Harvard. Her seminar, titled “‘Rite of Spring’ at the Nexus of Art and Ritual,” focuses on the power of ritual in Stravinsky’s work to illuminate the centrality of music and dance in human expression. The course is offered for Harvard credit under the Committee on Dramatic Arts.

“My course provides a forum for talking about some of the ideas that surround art and ritual,” says Dakin. “People often think of both art and ritual as being extraneous — as either unimportant, or not easy to come by. Yet art is immediate and communicates imagination, intuition, and aesthetic in a way that other fields don’t.”

Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” depicts pagan rituals that culminate in the sacrifice of a young woman, whose death is intended to appease or pacify the gods of spring. When the piece premiered in Paris, it shocked the audience and sparked a riot, not only for the story line but also for the dissonant score and unusual dance. The choreography, by Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes, featured jerky, violent movements that were unlike anything the ballet world had seen. When the curtain rose on their production, Stravinsky and Nijinsky forever changed the course of music history.

Dakin and her students analyze artistic expression and elements of ritual in the original “Rite of Spring” and in three subsequent versions: by Pina Bausch (1975), Martha Graham (1985), and Jaime Blanc (2009). Each “Rite” interpretation provides a lens onto the relationship of art to ritual, says Dakin. She and her students draw on literature from performance studies, mythology, and anthropology to frame their discussions. They also view film and study choreography notes to explore what each “Rite” suggests about human nature, ritual, and art.

“I chose four “Rites” that I believed have a very strong relationship to ritual,” says Dakin. “Each addresses ritual in a different kind of way and provides opportunity for discussion of artistic purpose and meaning.” Dakin herself danced the role of the Chosen One in the Graham “Rite,” which premiered to critical acclaim in New York City.

Course meetings typically include a movement component at the end of the discussion. Students leave the seminar room for the dance studio, where they work with voice, music, and movement to create elements of a ritual. Through that process, says Dakin, they attempt to find the dynamic that might underlie the birth of a group ritual.

“Dakin’s discussions, the readings, and the movement we have done together are all fascinating,” says Eleanor Duckworth, professor of education at the Graduate School of Education and a part-time dancer. “The course has stimulated my awareness of ritual and has been a wonderful example of how one can approach dance within an academic framework.”

While Dakin’s students explore the long and varied history of the “Rite,” another group on campus is preparing to take its own role in music history — another project Dakin has had a hand in.

On April 16-18, 10 Harvard dancers will perform excerpts from a brand-new setting of “The Rite of Spring” by acclaimed Mexican choreographer Jaime Blanc. The performance — which is a United States premiere — will be part of “Dancers’ Viewpointe 9: Rite of Passage,” an annual concert presented by the Office for the Arts (OfA) Dance Program.

The Harvard “Rite of Spring” project first took shape during the 2007-08 academic year, when Dakin was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She began a conversation with Elizabeth Bergmann, director of the Harvard Dance Program, about the possibility of a Harvard “Rite.” Bergmann “catapulted the idea,” says Dakin, and the pair extended an invitation to Blanc shortly thereafter.

“Liz [Bergmann] is always interested in finding new ways to involve students in professional-level activities and in getting top-notch artists to come to campus,” says Dakin. “We were thrilled about the idea of having our own ‘Rite of Spring’ at Harvard.”

The dance company for the Blanc performance includes eight Harvard students. One of the performers, Kevin Shee ’11, is also enrolled in Dakin’s course. Dakin will dance the role of the Ancestress, and Kristin Ing Aune (GSE ’03), assistant dance director, will be the Chosen One.

Blanc, who hails from Oaxaca, drewon the culture and rituals of southern Mexico for inspiration on his project.

“During my childhood in the south of Mexico, I lived in a place which is almost magical … full of the legacy of cultural rituals,” he says. “Our town was very small, and each daily ritual — like going to the fields, going to take water from the river, going to the church — had special meaning.”

“Blanc’s work takes us back to a primitive human time, and yet the choreography itself is very contemporary,” Dakin says. “It makes for a very interesting juxtaposition.”

The dance company began rehearsing in January, when Blanc came to Harvard for an intensive weeklong workshop. Dakin has been leading subsequent rehearsals, while Aune corresponds with Blanc via email and phone. He will return to Harvard on April 11 to make final adjustments and fine-tune the performance.

“One of the brilliant things about Harvard dancers is that they have an extraordinary combination of brains and talent,” says Dakin. “They have been remarkably adept at embracing Jaime’s work within such a short time frame.” “

Jaime is a marvelous human being — highly intelligent, but also warm and with a delightful sense of humor,” adds Aune. “It has been an honor to work so closely with him and with Christine.”

Blanc’s residency is supported by the Ruth Page Visiting Artist Fund through Learning From Performers, a program of the OfA.