American Contemporary Ballet’s The Rite Showing with Burlesque: Sad, Saucy, and Brilliantly Cerebral
American Contemporary Ballet’s The Rite Showing with Burlesque Review October 6, 2023 | ACB Performance Venue – Los Angeles, CA, USA
American Contemporary Ballet (ACB) opened its 12th season on October 6 with The Rite Showing with Burlesque – a well-paced, three-part bill that captured the company’s flair for the odd and pulled audiences through what could best be described as a harrowing exploration of contemporary feminism.
The program starts with the world premiere of The Rite, yet another rendering of Igor Stravinsky’s amply-adapted The Rite of Spring. To add to the 150+ versions of a story that has become well-embedded in the Western cultural canon is risky.
It takes guts. Luckily, that’s just what ACB is about.
Since its founding in 2011, ACB has garnered a reputation for being brazen. From the company’s edgier marketing strategy that steers from the conventional polished approach, to aligning the start of the season around Halloween, to being the only ballet company in L.A. to perform exclusively to live music, ACB shuns the traditionally tame, codified world of ballet.
Then, there’s the venue.
American Contemporary Ballet’s The Rite Showing with Burlesque Review
American Contemporary Ballet’s The Rite Showing with Burlesque takes place in ACB’s studios which are located on the 28th floor of City National 2Cal, a 52-story office tower in Downtown L.A.
Far from a proper performance venue, the space obliges the audience to sit quite close to the dancers. The set-up mimics a rehearsal setting and inspires an unusual degree of intimacy between the performers and onlookers. According to Lincoln Jones, ACB director and choreographer, this dialogic dimension is by design.
The Rite, featuring new choreography by Jones, divulges in the themes of the power of ritual and the high honor of women in society. The work is sectioned into five parts.
The first, what I will call ‘The Choosing’, begins with a single figure (danced by Hannah Barr) lying motionless in a near fetal position on the floor. Upon her flickers a single spotlight that, as the music (performed masterfully on piano by Brandon Zhou and Daniel Gledhill) picks up, gradually increases in intensity. She is soon enshrouded by a fearsome, veiled retinue to whom she eventually awakes and from whom her furious efforts to escape are thwarted.
The second part introduces the audience to a goddess-like figure (danced by Madeline Houk) who is set apart from the other figures in nearly every way.
First is the costuming. Where The Chosen (as I’ll call Barr’s character) and her retinue dance barefoot and are outfitted in plain, taupe-colored costumes that stylistically echo the more recent Suspiria film (designed by Ruoxuan Li and Yasamin Sarabipour), the Goddess (as I’ll call Houk’s character) dances on pointe and is dressed in a chainmail-like version of the more pagan rags.
Second is the attitude. Juxtaposing The Chosen’s gut-punching timidity and the retinue’s unnerving dispassion, Houk endows her character with bold authority. While the other dancers move as if impelled by some otherworldly force, that the Goddess is in control of her own body is obvious. It is with this power that the Goddess demands a sacrifice; she is not to be refused.
Part three is the climax, the point of conviction. It is at this point that The Chosen accepts her fate. Barr, impressive in her theatrics, conveys clearly the transformation of her character from furtive to assertive, from fragile to ferocious. Her motions, now more aptly matching the raw, angular sounds of Stravinsky’s original score, are quicker and more resolute.
The fourth and fifth parts largely blend together. Having made her decision to sacrifice herself, The Chosen must now endure a series of obstacles – cleverly constructed from the bodies on the stage – which she approaches at her own volition. Starting at the obstacles with her chest forward and shoulders back, The Chosen is by the end quite literally darting at them head-first.
As The Rite progresses, the mood shifts from darkness to light, and the energy rises. And while it took a while to get there, the end comes much too soon.
The audience is just barely allowed a glimpse of The Chosen standing proudly in her crimson headdress when the lights shut off and the dancers return backstage. The work ends unclearly, on a single note, in a quick stroke of light, and with red powder hanging ominously in the air. At this point, however, the audience thinks less of The Chosen’s death as a tragedy as much as an example of heroic sacrifice.
To me, The Rite of Spring and its many reimaginations have never felt like character ballets, but perhaps I was wrong. Owning the awkward, abstracted, and at times pedestrian-like movement, the dancers – Barr and Houk especially – are tremendous in their characters.
Seated so close, I think I even saw Barr cry.
Jones’s choreography is on the whole uncomplicated and uninventive, riding lightly rather than really digging into the complexity of the music. Yet, to his merit, he is not necessarily known for this. Instead, Jones is well-credited with his ability to make proleptic a seemingly anachronistic story.
Although The Rite draws heavily on the early 20th century version, it is undoubtedly modern, speaking directly to the politics of its time. Jones, tapping into Pina Bausch’s playbook, accentuates the sexual politics of the original story. Where he distances himself from ‘Rite’ reimagines-past, though, is in his attempt not to recreate an ancient society but recast the primitive view of the relative position and duties of women on today’s society.
A woman’s worth, the work suggests, is not to be determined by others but from within herself. She, like The Chosen, must make that choice.
Following The Rite comes Burlesque.
While The Rite seems to be all about recognizing and celebrating feminine power, its follow-up is about claiming, or rather re-claiming, what is naturally owed.
Pandering toward a true burlesque show, the work – also choreographed by Jones – is a bawdy spectacle that lures the audience in perhaps much further than they want. (Front row seats are not for the faint of heart).
Rather than convey a cohesive plot, Burlesque is divided into seven distinct movements that range from the dark and erotic to the outright bizarre.
Despite the uniqueness of each, all movements coincide in a common theme - the power of She.
The first six movements spotlight a solo dancer who, one by one, strut, crawl, or are carried onto the stage.
While on its own it might have shined, the first movement (danced by Victoria Maning) is a relatively soft, uninspired opening to what gets increasingly weird. The second (danced by Annette Cherkasov) is where things take a turn. The third (danced by Brittany Yevoli) keeps you questioning, the fourth (danced by Houk) lets you breathe, but the fifth and sixth (danced by Elise Kruger and Barr, respectively) makes you ask yourself,
“What am I watching?”
In sum, it’s a work you can’t quite forget.
On the whole, the dancers in Burlesque are bold and daring, none the least of which are Cherkasov, Yevoli, and Barr who lean unsparingly into burlesques’s traditional striptease element.
While this feature could affront an unsuspecting audience, it does not at all detract from the integrity of the art. The characters, costumed in a range of underbust corsets to nothing at all, are well-fit to, and seem to play to, the strengths of their performers. In its traditional form, burlesque is supposed to be about unleashing rather than inventing a character, and I think Jones and the cast excellently captured that.
Wrapping up the evening is Variation VII, what I understood to be a standalone excerpt of Burlesque. The central part of this vignette, which dominated last year’s postseason buzz, is performed by five dancers – Houk, Barr, Cherkasov, Quincy Smith, Yevoli, and Kruger.
While the six vignettes that came before are more evergreen, this piece, toying with the themes of temptation and liberation, seems to be set in the 1950s, a period during which the pressure to conform to a ‘respectable woman’ image was perhaps never more poignant.
The dance, if it can be called such, centers on a nondescript couch. One by one, the performers – each embodying a distinct version of the proper woman – enter the stage. The reason for their presence and their relationship is uncertain, yet one thing is for sure: they have something to hide.
As to the dancers’ respective performances, not much can be said. Variation VII is very much a piece focused more on the quality of the narrative than on the dancing.
Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any more odd and unsettling, a cherry pie is brought onto the scene. In a flash, the dancers launch themselves at the pie, devouring it ravenously and absolutely obliterating the conventional “respectable woman” image. What does being respectable even mean?
As to what happens next, that’s something you’ll have to experience for yourself.
Leading up to the evening, I had very little idea of what to expect. In ACB’s own unorthodox way, details were few. “The best horror film of the year isn’t a film,” teased the company leading up to the show. But once again, Jones and ACB have put together an inspired program that leaves its audience curious and craving more.
In a way that was both genuinely frightening and inescapably riveting, the program masterfully captures the essence of the modern woman’s condition.
Jillian Verzwyvelt is a freelance writer who focuses on arts, culture, and travel. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, she trained at Lafayette Ballet Theatre before moving to Fort Worth, Texas to pursue bachelor’s degrees in economics and communication studies from Texas Christian University. Here, she discovered how to translate her passion for the stage to the page. Jillian is now working toward a dual master’s degree in global media and communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California.