CHAPEL HILL - The first time Emil Kang heard Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” at the New York Philharmonic, he hated it.
Which was perhaps understandable.
“I was in the fifth grade,” said Kang, the executive director for the arts at UNC. “So you have to cut me some slack on that.
“But you know what? I wasn’t bored. This is music that, no matter how many times you hear it, always sounds new. And that, to me, is the hallmark of truly great, truly timeless art.”
In the years since that introduction, Kang has come to a deep appreciation for Stravinsky’s groundbreaking work and the Vaslav Nijinksy ballet that accompanied its riotous 1913 debut, which has come to be recognized as one of the 20th century’s most epochal artistic and cultural events.
And this season, Kang and Carolina Performing Arts are launching the most ambitious undertaking in the organization’s history: an unprecedented nine-month-long celebration of the centennial of “The Rite of Spring.”
The festival includes 14 new academic courses for students, two scholarly conferences and a remarkable slate of live performances by some of the world’s top artists.
“The Rite of Spring at 100” opened on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 with performances by the Silk Road Orchestra with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and continues through next April with appearances by artists ranging from the Joffrey Ballet to the Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg to master puppeteer Basil Twist.
The schedule will include 11 new works, nine world premieres and two U.S. premieres as participating artists reinterpret, explore and take inspiration from Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s masterpiece.
“If we want to assert our role in the world as a global arts destination, if we want to lead the discussion instead of follow it, this is an incredible opportunity to do that,” Kang said. “There’s a lot of risk in committing to an undertaking of this magnitude. But ‘The Rite of Spring’ itself is a celebration of risk. I think all new discoveries come out of embracing challenges and innovation.”
“The Rite of Spring,” with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company dancing Nijinksy’s choreography to Stravinsky’s score, was nothing if not innovative when it opened on May 29, 1913, at the Théâtres des Champs-Élysees in Paris.
Everything about the performance, from Stravinsky’s wild, dissonant music to Nijinsky’s primal, jarring choreography, was radically different from what ballet audiences were accustomed to seeing, “at a time when people expected ballet dancers to look like swans,” according to Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin of the University of California at Berkeley.
Instead, the “Rite” was harsh, aggressive, evoking themes of violence, sexuality, primitivism and death. A near-riot erupted in the audience as pro- and anti-factions clashed.
In time, though, Stravinsky’s piece became one of the world’s most iconic and influential pieces of music, and its debut, on the eve of World War I, is seen as a pivot point ushering in the modern world.
UNC music professor Severine Neff was the one who suggested in 2008 that Carolina commemorate the 100th anniversary of “The Rite of Spring.” Carolina Performing Arts contacted a number of leading artists to gauge their interest and ideas about participating.
“One performer, in Germany, said ‘What are you, crazy? Anyone who would even think of comparing themselves to Stravinsky doesn’t understand how important this man is,’ ” Kang recalled. “But most of the artists we spoke with were excited about the prospect.”
Among them was Basil Twist, whose unconventional puppetry echoes the radical nature of work that is the focus of the festival. For “The Rite of Spring at 100” he is creating a work that uses decidedly unusual materials – smoke, for example, and vast sheets of fabric – as his puppets.
“The essence of puppetry, to me, is bringing something lifeless to life,” Twist said at a panel discussion about “The Rite of Spring at 100” last Monday. “And the way to honor ‘The Rite of Spring’ is to do something big. I wanted to break the mold, to do something new and maybe a little bit frightening.”
Twist’s stage production will be accompanied by the Orchestra of St. Luke – which reflects another important concept the celebration is built on, one that also marked the original “Rite of Spring”: collaboration. Several of the performances in the festival bring together artists from different disciplines, different backgrounds, different genres: Twist with the Orchestra of St. Luke, for example, and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava.
“Many of the most interesting things happen at the intersections of things,” said Yo-Yo Ma. “France, Russia, mixing, collaborating. One of my favorite ways of thinking about creativity comes from nature: in ecology there’s an idea called ‘the edge effect,” which is that where two different ecosystems come together, like the savannah and the forest, you find the most new forms of life. It’s the same with art. Music, film dance. Artists should always ask themselves: What are your edges? What are your intersections?”
Kang said “The Rite of Spring at 100” is, without question, the most audacious project Carolina Performing Arts has taken on since he arrived there eight years ago. In order to make a mark on the world, he said, you have to be willing to take on big challenges.
“Shoot for the moon,” he said. “You’re never going to get all the way there, but you try anyway. That’s what it’s all about.”