Making dances about dance is a familiar postmodernist occupation. But what about making a dance about a dance and its first audience? And blending in a contemporary audience to boot? Think wheels within wheels, layers upon layers. The boggling idea comes off as a delight only when someone like avant-garde choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer tackles the project.
Rainer's "RoS Indexical," which received its West Coast premiere Thursday at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles, revisits the 1913 Paris premiere of the Vaslav Nijinsky-Igor Stravinsky ballet "The Rite of Spring," which sparked the most famous riot in dance history. Fistfights broke out in the audience, and the dancers could not hear the orchestra over the commotion.
Typically, Rainer approaches her work, created in 2007, through indirection. She uses the soundtrack of a 2006 BBC documentary, "Riot at the Rite," which chronicled the premiere by dramatizing the audience's reactions to the ballet.
Since the original audience yelled its insults in French, not English, we're already at one remove from the work.
Because the original choreography also was lost until Millicent Hodson's 1987 conjectural re-creation of the "Rite" for the Joffrey Ballet, we're at another layer of distance.
Add the performance by four women of this iconic, patriarchal work (a young virgin must dance herself to death to ensure the success of the spring crops), and there are still more conceptual collisions and juxtapositions to consider.
Even that's only the beginning.
Midway through the work, a number of black placards, with words such as "savage" on one side and "sa(l)ve" on the other, fell from the top of the stage to hang above the dancers, who occasionally repaired to an onstage sofa to regroup.
At one point, about 30 collaborators planted in the audience, including two in replicas of Nicholas Roerich's original "Rite" costumes, rushed the stage to protest. "Go back to TriBeCa!" one yelled, referring to the downtown New York neighborhood where Rainer lives when she's not teaching at UC Irvine.
On Thursday, an unplanned change also occurred when one dancer, Pat Catterson, had to miss the L.A. engagement (through Sunday) because of a family emergency. Rainer, who was born in 1934, stepped in, giving what she called a "geriatric" performance that entailed both standing on stage and giving a more than respectable and often arresting amount of movement.
Still, one had to wonder how Catterson's absence affected the work, especially at the climactic Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One.
A technical glitch at the opening marred the Thursday performance too, as Rainer and dancers Sally Silvers, Emily Coates and Patricia Hoffbauer sat at a card table listening through headsets to what may have been a radio broadcast of the 1913 premiere. But the sound wasn't working, and a theater technician had to come on stage to make an adjustment.
At a post-performance discussion, Rainer asked if anyone thought the mishap had been planned, and after a number of hands shot up, she mused, "Maybe we should keep that in."
But once the sound was fixed, it was off to the races, with segments that included the dancers deliciously humming the opening of Stravinsky's score, or miming throwing rocks at the disapproving audience, or draping themselves over the sofa in cheesecake poses. "You'd rather have sex?" they appeared to ask. "Well, how about this or this?"
Rainer kept the flow going with images that sparked all kinds of thoughts and reactions.
The evening also included "Spiraling Down," a 2008 Yale-J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Research Institute commission, which investigated the permeability of memory through imitative movement sequences drawing on sports, texts about aging and other subjects, and movements derived from Rainer's career.
At 74, this icon of postmodernism shows no signs of enfeebled creativity.
'RoS Indexical'/ 'Spiraling Down'
Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., downtown L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. today,
3 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org