What’s in a name?

March 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

[this entry is in process]

The piece with many names.

The original Russian name was not used at the world premiere of this piece.  I’m curious how Diaghilev and his collaborators landed upon the particular translation they used in French, and at what point they began referring to it by its Russian name. I wonder how they referred to it among themselves. Go back to the Diaghilev biography for clues in their correspondence between Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Of course the name could have changed monikers at any point and probably at many points in its life even within this one company: after Nijinsky, during Massine’s tenure, after Diaghilev, etc. And of course different people likely referred to it with different names. At the time the collaborators were mostly Russians fluent in French and thus fully aware of the different implications of its differing names in those two languages. How fluent in French were they actually?

Other than Paris the only other place that the original piece played was London, thus requiring an English name. I wonder how they came up with the English translation and how fluent the translators were both with language and with the piece.

German: Fruhlingsopfer

Opfer in Google translate…

Opfer, Geschädigte, Verunglückte
Opfer, Opferung, Verzicht, Opfergabe
Opfer, Gabe, Opfergabe, Kollekte, Vorstellung
Opfer, Opfergabe
Beute, Opfer, Raub
Opfer, Unfallopfer, Verletzte, Todesopfer, Verunglückte, Verwundete

Rite of Spring as Community Event

January 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center is hosting a fundraising event titled The Rite of Spring.  The event is described as:

An elegant evening celebrating the revolutionary spirit of experimentation and collaboration of the Ballets Russes and the Centennial of Nijinsky’s “crime against grace” The Rite of Spring.

Doors open at 6:30PM

Invitation emailed January 26, 2013

Invitation emailed January 26, 2013

Gallery of Digital Sculpture based on Nijinsky Photographs

July 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

French sculptor Christian Comte’s film Nijinsky 1912 premiered at Cannes in 2009.

And he recently posted what seems to be a fragment of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring to his YouTube site.



Nijinsky illustration by Tom Bachtell — New Yorker, June 2009.

These films are fascinating in that they initially seem to be period recordings of the original Ballets Russes’ productions, complete with constant flicker, light that fades in and out, and optics that fade into black at the edges of the screen.  Our uncanny sense that this astonishing “realness” is too good to be true is confirmed once the dancers start moving.  There is something terribly “wrong” with the actual movement that cannot be explained by the flicker characteristic of early film technology.  As Joan Acocella describes in her 2009 article for the New Yorker magazine, “Fool’s Gold Dept.: The Faun,” these may be real digital works of art, but they do not bring us closer to the original works of art.  Comte has created moving images from still photographs taken of the original productions, sculpting plastic images from still photographs.  The original photographs were intended to evoke the movement which inspired them.  These moving images painstakingly set to the music which inspired [this relationship is complicated than mere inspiration — must unpack] and accompanied the original movement seem to bring the choreography full circle.  And yet they also lead us further from the source, to a new creation with its own rules of authorship and engagement. These rules of authorship and engagement are part of what interest me in my historical analysis of The Rite of Spring over its 100 years of continued collaborative creation.

Here Comte is interviewed at the time of the Cannes festival in April 2009:



Sacrifice’s Distributed Selfhood & Radical Asymmetry

March 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

I presented the following paper in December 2011, as part of a symposium on Practice as Research hosted by University of California Davis:  Performance and Social Change. This paper weaves through and alongside my choreography, “Embodying the Rites 1.o,” which I also presented in the symposium as “Embodying the Rites 1.1”.

Choreography by Hilary Bryan: "Embodying the Rites 1.0" Performed at CounterPULSE, San Francisco, November 2011. (If link fails, copy/paste the following into a new browser window: http://vimeo.com/32887046)

Sacrifice’s Distributed Selfhood & Radical Asymmetry
Notes toward the dissertation: Embodying the Rites of Spring – 100 years of human sacrifice

I. Distributed Selfhood

I’m every woman. It’s all in me. 
~Chaka Khan

In her 1978 hit R&B single, Chaka Khan asserts her total selfhood, incorporating every other woman into her unique form and (super)human ability (Khan, Ashford and Simpson).  She suggests not just a connection with or similarity to other women, but equivalence, a coincidence of her being with all other female beings outside of time and place.  Khan locates within herself every manifestation of woman, with a claim that reaches farther than incorporation of each woman that is, was, or ever will be.  It is not “they” that exist inside of her, but “it” – not a multiplicity of selves, but an abstract notion of collective being.  Khan distributes and abstracts her particular self to a general principle.  Khan’s distributed and all-encompassing selfhood cum abstraction suggests a divine principle, the sort of which might manifest in multiple different forms, and which might engage a community of believers at various levels of abstraction.  Such a multivalent capacity to shape shift allows participants to interact with such a divine principle in different ways at different times and for different purposes.

In Hindu religions Kali, Durga, and Parvati, are all aspects of the Great Mother Goddess, Mahadevi, who both nourishes and destroys.  In Hindu Tantric texts, śakti is the radiating power or energy that saturates the entire cosmos and all that is in it: “She the primordial Śakti is supreme, whose nature is unoriginated joy, eternal, utterly incomparable, the seed of all that moves or is motionless.” (Urban 792, ) Śakti’s linguistic root, śak, to be able, fits Khan’s portrayal of her all-encompassing self as infinitely capable.[1]  Here the same name is used for both the abstraction and for its corporeal manifestation as anthropomorphic and anthropopathic deity.  Khan abstracts her human self to one of divine and ubiquitous proportions with an ease and confidence that suggests that this infinite capability is not hers alone, but available to and inherent in any of us.

Such distributed and all-encompassing identity resembles the Hindu notion that we and everything else in the universe are all incarnations of atman, the immortal aspect of mortal existence, the hidden selfhood which is shared by every material object, animate and inanimate.(hinduwebsite.com)  The implications of this shared selfhood for The Rite of Spring is is complex: if all beings share a common self, then death of the sacrificial victim implies death for everyone.  Fellow villagers participating in the ritual on stage and audience members participating as voyeurs from beyond the fourth wall, we all die along with the chosen one.  By participating in the ritual, we commit suicide along with her.  She is our surrogate, taking a hit for the team, giving her life for our survival; and through that process we die with her.  And yet simultaneously we don’t.  We are the ones who carry her lifeless body off the stage, and we are the ones whose mortal existence survives to participate in this ritual again.  Same time next year.

This conflation of sacrificer and sacrificed is particularly potent in a sacrificial rite where death must be self inflicted.  This ritual includes no mediating priest who lops off her head with a single blow from a sacred ax, no administration of soporific drug before abandoning her on a mountain top, no physical restraint while ripping out her heart.  Nor is this suicide a momentary act of self immolation, as jumping off a cliff or stabbing oneself in the chest might be.  The Rite of Spring’s “Sacrificial Dance” demands a sustained process of self directed physical violence intended to exhaust one’s own body beyond capacity.[2]  The chosen one simultaneously fulfills the roles of both sacrificer and sacrificed, embodying both cause and effect.  The protraction of time allotted for this multivalent process demands that she continually renew her commitment to both roles.[3]

II. Beyond Gender
Khan’s emphasis on her incorporation of all things female (or on general female incorporation of everything), limits the reach of this “all” that is in her.  Her self encompasses only things feminine, rather than all things. But why stop there? In “Embodying the Rites, 1.2” I sing Khan’s refrain without enunciating the word “woman,” so as not to limit my collective beingness. (Bryan)  Of course, audience members familiar with these popular lyrics will likely supply that limit mentally, as they fill in the missing word, and as they consider my female form.  I welcome this conflation. If this mythic Rite requires the death dance specifically of a woman, and if that woman begins the ritual dressed identically to and moving in unison with the other women on stage (as she does in re-imaginings of this piece throughout out the 20th century), then that woman seems to stand in for all the others.  She takes a hit for the team, representing all the other members of that team. (Nijinsky, Bausch, Bejart, Preljocaj)

Khan is a product and exponent of 20th Century gender struggle, as are the choreographers who have reinterpreted The Rite of Spring over the past 100 years, and who (mostly) agree that the Chosen One is specifically a Chosen Woman.  Is there some 20th century Western understanding that predisposes us to limit ourselves, as Khan does, to gender specific co-incidence, as Rite of Spring choreographers (mostly) do? If our collective survival depends on our nourishing the sun with female flesh, then all that femininity might encompass is on the chopping block in a way that masculinity is not.  And as the group that enters and exits this ritual intact, the masculine, enjoys an integrity and stability that the feminine does not.

In another version of gendered sacrificial violence, Georges Bataille’s description of Aztec sacrifice requires that sacrifice to the sun be gendered male. Indeed, Spanish sketches of Aztec sacrifices portray uniquely male victims, held down by male acolytes assisting immolation by male priests.  In Bataille’s description of Aztec cosmology, both the warrior’s death on the battlefield and the male prisoner of war’s ritual murder are required for the sun to continue its daily journey across the sky. (Bataille)  By contrast, Western movement artists and their 20th century audiences satisfy the sun’s thirst for blood with female sacrifice.  The function of sacrifice is the same, yet the responsibility/privilege to die as a martyr has shifted from male to female.  Roerich and Stravinsky set this precedent by scripting female sacrifice into their libretto; and over the past 100 years of re-imagined Rites, we have continued to support this choice, that what is appropriate to destroy is woman.[4]  The asymmetrical relationship of this destruction is disturbing.

III. Asymmetry

I continue to be troubled by the radical asymmetry that exists between the sacrifice and the sacrificed [priest/little girl], or between those who call for sacrifices and those who bear the costs [UC chancellor/UC students].
Bruce Lincoln (Lincoln)

The violence inherent in blood sacrifice attracts theorists who seek to understand its prevalence and persuasive power in human activity.  Their explanations often serve to normalize extraordinarily violent human action.  How does one entity destroy another? How is it that participants buy into an asymmetry that implies their own destruction?  The contemporary trope of the suicide bomber raises these ancient questions with a new contemporary edge.  We, the ones who consider ourselves external to this trope, devour psychological studies of the suicide bomber and behind the scenes glimpses into their process.  We seek explanations that might calm our horror.  French ethnologists and sociologists Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss sing the efficacy of sacrifice for community building. (Hubert and Mauss; Girard)  Cultural theorist and literary critic René Girard explains the necessity of sacrifice for redirecting innate human aggression, which would destroy the fabric of society without this safety valve. (Girard)  Anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out the function sacrifice serves in helping a highly regulated community acknowledge the random and offensive unfairness of life. (Geertz)

Lincoln is worried not only about the sacrificial victim, but about what he calls secondary sacrificial victim, or all those who are exploited by the asymmetrical social hierarchy that the sacrifice is designed to reinforce.  The very nature of sacrifice is asymmetrical in that one entity benefits from the event, while another is destroyed. This asymmetrical arrangement, built in as it is to the structure of sacrifice, serves to reinforce social hierarchy in general.  Some benefit, while others sacrifice.  Various processes of persuasion and mystification allow certain discourses to become hegemonic. And the quality of transcendence that they acquire through ritual sacrifice makes this hegemony seem not only inevitable, but necessary and desirable, even for the mass segments of society who are victimized by them.  Thus those who might otherwise perceive themselves as suffering from social asymmetry seek not to overturn it, but rather respect, expect, and worship that very asymmetry which locks them into disadvantaged social status.

Lincoln’s statement inspires me like a call to action, and even a research methodology.  I seek to approach each of these troubling Rites of Spring with this goal of seeking the underlying system of cosmological speculation through close reading of its details and central sequences.  My interest extends beyond close reading to “close feeling” of these details by experiencing them through my own body.  Though of course if Patrick Anderson is correct, this will teach me nothing about what was, but only about what is.  Of course, this is the same essential truth about LMA and what we can know about another by moving the way they do.  All we can know is how it feels for us to move in that way.  We do not know what it is for them.

In many Rites we see very little social stratification or differentiation at all.  The represented hegemony is so general as to disappear.  Uniform costuming, gesture and spacing suggest an equality in the community.  There is of course the stark contrast between men and women.  And the convention that the victim be chosen from among the women.  But within those two gendered subgroups, there is general uniformity.  In Bausch’s Rite, the one standout male character is the seer or priest who Bausch presents us 2 figures who stand out from the crowd, one male and one female.  The asymmetrical power structure reveals itself in the power this male figure holds over all the females – it is he who selects the victim, he who marks her as chosen, he who physically thrusts her into her the sacrificial dance.


Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share : An Essay on General Economy. New York: Zone Books, 1988.

Bryan, Hilary. Embodying the Rites, 1.2. 2011. Performance and Social Change Symposium, Davis.

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 101.1 (1972): 1-37.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

hinduwebsite.com. “Atman – the Soul Eternal”.  Hinduwebsite.com. November 12 2011. <http://www.hinduwebsite.com/atman.asp>.

Hubert, Henri, and Marcel Mauss. Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function. [Chicago]: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Khan, Chaka, Nickolas Ashford, and Valerie Simpson. “I’m Every Woman.”  Chaka. Burbank, Calif.: Warner Bros., 1978. 1 sound disc (44 min.).

Lincoln, Bruce. Death, War, and Sacrifice : Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Urban, Hugh B. “The Path of Power: Impurity, Kingship, and Sacrifice in Assamese Tantra.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69.4 (2001): 777-816.

[1] I can cast a spell / Of secrets you can tell /  Mix a special brew / Put fire inside of you / Anytime you feel danger or fear / Instantly I will appear

[2] As Stravinsky conducted this work with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1962, the “Sacrificial Dance” is the longest of 13 movements and lasts 4.5 minutes.

[3] Ну, и что??

[4] Girard’s theory of redirecting innate human aggression from “bad violence” that undermines the fabric of society, to “good violence” against sacrificial victims – particularly the innocent, the marginal, and the powerless – suggests that our 20th century habit of sacrificing women is directly related to their marginalization and disempowered status in 20th century Western society.

It’s all in me

November 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m every woman. It’s all in me. 
Chaka Khan (and Whitney Houston)

I reference Chaka Khan’s lyrics in an article that I wrote about my choreography “Embodying the Rites 1.1.”

What ever you want

Whatever you need
Anything you want done baby
I’ll do it naturally
Cause I’m every woman
It’s all in me
It’s all in me

Chorus 1:
I’m every woman
It’s all in me
Anything you want done baby
I’ll do it naturally

Chorus 2:
I’m every woman
It’s all in me
I can read your thoughts right now
Every one from A to Z

I can cast a spell
Of secrets you can tell
Mix a special brew
Put fire inside of you
Anytime you feel danger or fear
Instantly I will appear, yeah, cause

Chorus 1

Oh, I can sense your needs
Like rain onto the seeds
I can make a rhyme
Of confusion in your mind
And when it comes down to some good old fashioned love
I got it
I got it
I got it, got it, got it, baby, baby, baby

Chorus 1
Chorus 2

I ain’t braggin’
Cause I’m the one
Just ask me
Ooh, and it shall be done
And don’t bother
To compare
I got it

I’m every woman (repeat til fade)

I’m every woman (repeat til fade)

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