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Season for breaking the rules

In this variation on 'The Rite of Spring,' sacrifice is about giving up defenses.

March 18, 2004|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

A seated man holding a notepad faces a woman sitting opposite him and jots down her rushed litany of complaints about life. He seems to be an analyst; she, a patient.

Their brief dialogue sounds like something from a Jules Feiffer cartoon -- a kind of arch, ironic psychobabble. ("You throw up every morning?" "When did you first experience regret?")

In quick succession, two other apparent analysands, both, like the first, wearing goggles, but different styles -- take the chair and continue the ritual with their own rants. In the background, a lone, languid trumpet plays the Johnny Mercer-Victor Schertzinger song "Tangerine."

A tableau emerges as these characters launch into movement -- group gagging in slow motion, a soloist hanging from a red balloon -- all to the opening strains of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Dance impresario -- An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend section about Michael Sakamoto & Company incorrectly said that Sergei Diaghilev made his debut in a Nijinsky ballet at Paris' Theatre des Champs-Elysees in 1913. Diaghilev was a dance impresario, not a dancer, and the story should have said that he premiered the production at the theater.

Shades of German dance-maker Pina Bausch crossed with Woody Allen.

But what else would you expect on this, the eve of the vernal equinox?

As Michael Sakamoto, the mastermind behind those images, explains, they came to pass completely naturally: "I'd been thinking about the score for a few years when Highways offered me this very time slot. The material was just waiting to roll out."

The result -- titled "The Rite of Spring, etc." and set to the piano version of Stravinsky's score -- will receive its premiere at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica tonight. You might call it a homegrown alternative to the grander version by New York's Shen Wei Dance Arts that will be performed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday and Saturday.

No doubt it will flesh out the original pagan scenario of renewal, fertility and sacrifice with urban notions of those eternal verities -- but differently, of course, from the scandal-rousing Nijinsky ballet in which Sergei Diaghilev made his debut at Paris' Theatre des Champs-Elysees in 1913 and from many others since, including versions by Maurice Bejart, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Glen Tetley, Hans van Manen, Paul Taylor and Bausch herself.

Why so many takers?

"For me, the great music," Sakamoto says. "It's classical but breaks all the rules. It's melodic yet asymmetric, and it has the most dynamic range of tempo and rhythm of any piece I know. Why else? I'm drawn to its iconic value. I love to play with cultural baggage, to pay homage to history."

Moreover, Sakamoto says he feels the piano reduction, especially, suggests "a storm within the subject" and provides an intimate context for his four-member ensemble -- as opposed to the orchestral version, "which means standing up to a mountain."

Apart from the music, Sakamoto sees the scenario as a dialogue between the individual and society.

"Everything of value in life springs from one's thoughts, feelings and actions," the long, lean 36-year-old says after a rehearsal in a Santa Monica basement studio. "These then transcend to a collective of behaviors, mores and social patterns."

But this choreographer/theater artist has something more in mind than academic-style tenets. What he wants to illustrate is another universal given: "There is a group mentality. Sometimes it is benevolent, sometimes not. Some societies respect the individual, others do not -- with all grades in between."

To illustrate this, Sakamoto is using four character archetypes: a clown, a monk (played by himself), an actor and a free spirit, each with an elaborate, carefully worked out persona. All, he says, spilled from his imagination fully formed.

"They are the four essential sides of every personality," he explains. "We all have an actor in us that wants to be powerful and manipulate the external world to highlight our prejudices. And a free spirit that wants to be open and passionate and vulnerable and joyous and able to fulfill our own potential. And a clown that wants to amuse and be in harmony with the world -- badly enough to sacrifice the part that is intelligent, beautiful. And a monk that wants to live on principle, have the patience of eternity, not be self-aggrandizing or narcissistic or go to a baser self."

Central to "The Rite of Spring" is the Sacrifice -- originally, and most often since, a maiden offered up to the gods. But in Sakamoto's 80-minute show, which uses not only the entire score but other music along the way, sacrifice becomes a metaphor for the characters' giving up their defenses.

"They're holding on to these shields and playing out all their tricks for coping with life," he says. "But gradually" -- in the choreography, or the tongue-in-cheek, subversive scene in a psychologist's office, or a vaudevillian comedy routine set to a pop tune -- "the characters come to a state of greater vulnerability and honesty."

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