Culture Fop The Deathly Dance of the Virgin

The centenary of a scandalous classic gets an Israeli treatment; a trio of Indian dance divas pays a visit.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Ritual sacrifice and the cannibalization of dance

The scene at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on May 29, 1913, resembled more a brawl of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans than a ballet performance. Witnesses reported that all sorts of objects were lobbed at the orchestra, and the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary dancer and muse of the Ballet Russes, had to shout counts to the dancers who couldn't hear over the din.

The premiere of "The Rite of Spring," in which a virgin dances herself to death during a seasonal pagan ritual, is now considered a pivotal cultural moment of the 20th century, perhaps the night that modern dance lost its own virginity. The intoxicating combo of Nijinsky's precise, evocative staging – which already caused commotion a year earlier with the erotic "Afternoon of the Faun" – paired with a violent score by Igor Stravinsky, now a classic, brought the audience's passion to a boil.

It's hard to imagine such a visceral response these days. We're all so polite in our seats. If we hate something, we applaud lightly then go home and eviscerate it online. But that night, 100 years ago nearly to the day, has become legendary in its demonstration that art can be inciting.

"The Rite of Spring" has inspired choreographers ever since. Everyone, it seems, wants to put her or his stamp on it, perhaps in hopes of garnering even a fraction of that raw, initial reaction.

Hillel Kogan premiered his solo version of the work in 2011 and resurrects it this week, as part of Tel Aviv Dance.

"Since it is a very demanding solo piece for me to perform, physically, I do it quite rarely," said the choreographer, a longtime contributor to the Israeli contemporary dance scene and the rehearsal director for the Batsheva Ensemble. "I found the 100th anniversary an appropriate occasion to make the effort and to pay [homage] to this masterpiece."

Since "The Rite of Spring" is ultimately about sacrifice, Kogan examines the concept in a 21st-century framework: "Who is the victim and what are we sacrificing today?" It's a theme that Kogan says is "always relevant"; a theme this country might know a thing or two about.

In his exploration of sacrifice, Kogan embodies a variety of characters that sacrifice or experience sacrifice in various ways: a soldier who sacrifices his humanity, a mother who sacrifices her child, a prostitute who sacrifices her body.

"As a performer, I felt that I need to sacrifice myself on stage, too," he said. "I feel that in many ways I am doing it, exposing some very fragile points, not being as beautiful and as charming and as strong as we all want to be nowadays."

In mounting his own "Rite of Spring," Kogan is inserting himself into a long line of venerable dance makers over the past century who have found inspiration in Stravinsky's score and the provocative premise. But perhaps the line is too long.

Imagine if every filmmaker – from Spielberg to Soderbergh – decided they just had to do their own version of, say, "Citizen Kane." It might be devoured by film geeks but it doesn't exactly push the medium forward and it can alienate new viewers who don't get the wink. By constantly referencing its past to the point of obsession, is dance merely cannibalizing itself?

Kogan doesn't think so.

"By doing a version of a piece that is part of the classical canon, artists can dialogue between past and present," he said. "They can gain the power that a pastiche offers."

Hillel Kogan's "The Rite of Spring" will be performed on Friday, May 10 at 10 P.M. at the Yerushalmy Hall of the Suzanne Dellal Center.

As Israeli as chicken tikka masala

When one finishes one's army service in Israel, it's practically a national tradition to get the hell out of here for a bit of reflection and enlightenment.

The post-army trek can last anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on how much the soldier connects to a particular culture and, perhaps, how much he or she needs to heal. Some head to Thailand or South America or do a sweep of the entire world. But India is, for many, the pilgrimage of choice. A good chunk of young Israelis have spent at least some time there, to the point where it has become a bit of a stereotype and fodder for satire shows like "Eretz Nehederet," the Israeli equivalent of "Saturday Night Live."

On the flip side, there are approximately 80,000 Jews of Indian origin in Israel. Jews in India by tradition date back more than 2,000 years and many immigrated to Israel after the founding of the state. In particular, a significant cohort of Cochini Jews, from the Indian state of Kerala, arrived in the 1950s. A group of them settled on Moshav Nevatim in the Negev, now home to the beautiful Kerala Synagogue. The struggle of the Indian-Israeli community to integrate was the subject of the hit, and very sweet, 2004 Israeli film "Turn Left at the End of the World."

In 2005, another community of Indian Jews, claiming to be descendants of Joseph's son Menashe, was recognized as eligible for gaining citizenship in Israel. This past December, the Israel government gave the go-ahead to renew Bnei Menashe immigration, and the first batch of the remaining 7,200 Beit Menashe members arrived soon thereafter.

This week, Israel welcomes a few other special Indian guests from Nrityagram, India's first residential school for classical dances, founded in 1990 and based near Bangalore. As part of Tel Aviv Dance, the renowned dance duo of Surupa Sen, who runs the dance village, and Bijayini Satpathy, who runs the school, will perform with Pavithra Reddy and several live musicians. They present a selection of works created over 10 years, combing "ancient wisdom, sacred rituals and divine transformation": a dancer becomes a goddess, a stage becomes a temple.

And for all the former soldiers out there, who traded guns for gurus and tried to cleanse their souls and reclaim their youth in the ashrams of a faraway land, here is a rare opportunity to revisit the magic of whatever India means to you.

"Sriyah, A decade of dance making" will be performed at the Suzanne Dellal Center on Monday, May 13 at 9 P.M. and Tuesday, May 14 at 2 P.M.

The Tel Aviv Dance interpretation of "Rite of Spring."Credit: Gadi Dagon
A scene from "Sriyah, A decade of dance making."Credit: Uma Dhanwatey

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