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Ritual Action: Vijay Iyer and Prashant Bhargava Merge <em>The Rite of Spring</em> With the Holi Festival

I recently spoke with Iyer and Bhargava in separate phone conversations, to discover how they navigated between Stravinsky and Holi.
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One of the frequently, though unusually, overlooked aspects of The Rite of Spring is its actual title: The Rite depicts, of course, a series of rites. The ritualistic quality of the ballet has been ignored for good reason: for decades after the work's first performance, Vaslav Nijinsky's original choreography, which depicted a series of pagan dances and societal sacraments in praise of the antique Slavic god Yarilo, was lost. Now that it has been reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer - and is currently being performed at the University of North Carolina's Memorial Hall by the Joffrey Ballet - we can appreciate the original function of the music, and how Stravinsky's slinking harmonies and propulsive rhythms portray a primitive society dancing out its relationship to the earth.

Two of the artists that Carolina Performing Arts has commissioned for its year-long "Rite of Spring at 100" festival - jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, and designer and filmmaker Prashant Bhagrava - draw upon the ritual fount implicit in The Rite's music and explicit in its scenario. They have connected it, powerfully, to an entirely different set of cultural rites: that of the Hindu festival of Holi, celebrated each spring. RADHE RADHE - Rites of Holi features newly-composed music by Iyer, inspired by Stravinsky's score and performed by the renowned International Contemporary Ensemble, which accompanies footage that Bhargava filmed of the Holi festival in Mathura, India. You can watch the trailer of the event, which will premiere this coming Tuesday at on University of North Carolina's campus:

I recently spoke with Iyer and Bhargava in separate phone conversations, to discover how they navigated between Stravinsky and Holi.

What is your relationship to The Rite of Spring?
Prashant Bhargava: I really hadn't spent much time with The Rite of Spring prior to this project, and I was introduced to it by the commission, by Carolina Performing Arts and Vijay. I began with the myth and the ballet, kind of looking at the arcs in the different movements. Just a week prior to the festival in India, I went there really unaware of what was going to happen - I knew what Holi was and I'd celebrated Holi, but I'd never gone to the original place where it's celebrated.

Originally I thought it was just going to be very celebration-oriented, but it was actually very primal, and sexual and violent, as well. It really fit in with the insightful nature of The Rite of Spring, and I eventually myself edited with the Rite of Spring track, the London Symphony recording of it. I just fell in love with how dissonant it was, how chaotic it was, how it challenged all these boundaries at the time - emotional, eerie.

Vijay Iyer: I suppose it's not that different from many people who are composers today, dealing with the language of the piano. I've looked a lot at the score but especially the two-piano version that Stravinsky made, and you can see that there's something very pianistic about it - even as it was orchestrated, a lot is using the language of the hands of the piano, and pianistic things that are then set in the context of other instruments. So I was interested in that side of it, and this piece that we're doing has two pianos at the nucleus, and that becomes a very direct point of contact in terms of the structure and language of this piece. I think there's a lot of specific kinds of juxtaposition and the harmonic sensibility that comes from juxtaposition, a sort of bitonality or bimodality - basically arranging different sets of musical material in different registers, and across different instrument groups. That creates a sense of contrast and tension and counterpoint, that sort of dynamic that is abundant in Stravinsky's work, that's actually a pretty useful point of reference in the jazz world too.

In 2003, Iyer played in the ensemble Burnt Sugar's radical reinterpretation of The Rite

What about The Rite inspired you to draw connections with the Holi festival?
Iyer: It's not about the piece, but more about the idea. When Emil [Kang] put the idea out to me, in a way I wanted to work against the original, in the sense not only of not just ignoring it, but doing something they didn't do. When I think about that particular ballet, that everything we know about it from history and hype and so on, and Stravinsky's piece, there's a certain kind of deliberate primitivism going on that I find a little bit problematic. There's a self-exoticization going on for these guys who are Russians in the context of Parisian culture and representing the Pagan rites of Eastern Europe in the West, doing it in this way that was all about brutality and meant to shock the bourgeois...Well, it's not what I would have done.

So this was a chance for me, as an Indian American in the United States who's been sometimes dealing with similar dynamics about representation and questions of how to work with and harmonize with, or reference, my heritage in my work as a cosmopolitan American, cross-disciplinary artist - how do I navigate that same question of self-exoticization, or avoid that pitfall? So I was interested not in what is a fantasy about pagan ritual, but what is the lived reality of it. It seemed like a nice chance to look at what really happens in spring today, not in the sense of imaginary ancient past, not in the realm of myth, but in the realm of reality - or in the realm where those things intersect.

How do you see the collaboration, in its present state, drawing upon these two legacies of Holi and The Rite of Spring?
Bhagrava: Thematically, it's really fitting in a wonderful way - the mythology of the Russian folklore and the arc that's taking place is really occurring within our narrative as well, all the narrative buildup that's happening is really coming through. Eventually I looked upon the whole event as a citywide devotion to this goddess Radhe, and the sexual and spiritual transformation that occurs by people invoking her presence within their life. It is the transformation of spring as well. It goes through enough of an arc where by the end of it, there's huge bonfires and men with stick and all of this stuff, it has that primal violence of the last movement of The Rite of Spring.

RADHE RADHE - Rites of Holi premieres March 26 at UNC's Memorial Hall; you can purchase tickets here. Upcoming performances in The Rite of Spring at 100 festival include new versions of the ballet by the Nederlands Dans Theater I and the puppeteer Basil Twist. You can learn more about The Rite of Spring at 100 here, and read previous Huffington Post columns on the festival here. Be sure to check out Reflections on the Rite, a blog that discusses what 'The Rite of Spring' means today.