With its driving, swooning rhythms and primal energies, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring remains one of the “bad boy” pieces of the symphonic repertoire—even if its shock value has faded since its notorious 1913 debut, accompanying a Ballets Russes performance choreographed by Nijinsky, drove the audience of the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Élysées into a near-riot. 

Still, the piece retains an otherworldly beauty far ahead of its time, an emblem of riotous, neo-pagan spirit that continues to influence choreographers and artists. SF Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is fantastic when it comes to interpreting Stravinsky (as was his mentor Leonard Bernstein): I’ve only ever heard Tilson Thomas take on the great composer’s later, mannered-yet-momentous Neo-Classical period, so it will be a treat to hear him get wild with The Rite, paired with 1911’s Petrushka Thu/27-Sun/30 as part of the SF Symphony’s “Rebellious Beauty” Stravinsky festival.

Attendees will witness another musical treat—with accompanying performances and visuals—as Burning Man collective Art Haus takes over the Davies Hall lobby for a 90-minute pre-show extravaganza, which brings the Burning Man aesthetic to the sleek and rarified air of the symphony hall. While I can’t give away too much about the pre-show, I can say it will include contortionists, dancers, musicians in their dusted-off playa-wear, and plenty of surprises. (Alas, fire-twirlers, as well as an appearance by a giant gay sheep, were ruled out early.)  

Art Haus made major waves with its debut on Burning Man’s playa in 2017, assembling an orchestra, dance troupe, and visual artists to perform The Rite of Spring under the giant incandescent Tree of Ténéré. That performance—conceived by Art Haus co-founders Courtney Wise and Robert Dekkers (who also choreographed) and conducted by Brad Hogarth—drew more than 10,000 people, and a photograph of it by Tomas Loewy was featured at the Smithsonian as part of a Burning Man exhibit. 

“Rite of Spring seemed so appropriate for Burning Man, since both of them connect with people on a tribal level,” Wise, a Burning Man veteran, told me. “The theme in 2017 was Radical Ritual, which couldn’t describe the ballet any better.” With costumes by Christian Squires, sound and lighting design by the Robot Heart camp, special programming of the Tree of Ténéré’s 25,000 LED lights, and more, it was a communal effort that became a legendary spectacle.     

“When I got back from the Burn in 2016, I had this vision of ballet dancers in the dust, which seemed so beautiful,” Wise said. “I wondered, what would they dance to, what ballet would go with Burning Man? Rite of Spring was the obvious pairing. In January, I got Robert onboard with the idea to choreograph, and he said even if we got only got 10 people interested, we should do it, because it had so much possibility.”

Soon Wise also secured the talents of Hogarth and his musical-director wife Jeannie Psomas. Hogarth is a professor of music at San Francisco State and fills in at the SF Symphony as a trumpet player, and Psomas has played clarinet with the symphony and teaches as well. All three—Wise is a flutist—met as students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Other symphony members and associates joined in, as well as players from around the world, to make an orchestra of 35. “A lot of people volunteered, but when they saw the score, they gracefully bowed out,” said Wise with a laugh.

In his choreography for the Rite, which concerns pagan ritual sacrifice, Dekkers tinkered with the gender roles: this time instead of a group of tribesmen sacrificing virginal women, it was the other way round. Dekkers told the Chronicle at the time that he “imagined a planet with an insect-like environment, conjured with skittering movements, broken angles, spidery lines, the infestation of the men as they come in to be sacrificed.”

Wise said the Rite was also appropriate for Burning Man because first-timers—including conductor Hogarth in 2017—are called “virgins,” and traditionally have to lay down and make dust angels on the playa as a symbolic ritual. Hogarth added, “Burning Man is all about existing in a different community and making beauty out of this barren landscape. And I think Rite of Spring does that. It’s a very intense, raw piece, and it’s maintained that intensity for more than a century.” 

The performance sparked an outpouring of interest. “We had no idea that it was going to be as big as it was, but word really got out,” Wise said. She credits the participation of other Burning Man camps for some of the popularity, but also the allure of the idea. “Suddenly everyone heard there was going to be a ballet under the Tree of Ténéré, and we couldn’t keep people away. We didn’t really have a concept of crowd control.” 

“Some of the drone footage of the crowd that year was overwhelming,” Hogarth said. “And here we were thinking, it’s so far out there, what if nobody comes! Later, people told us what a breath of fresh air it was. We started getting recognized around the playa, which was pretty mind-blowing.” 

Art Haus’ 2018 performance ‘We, Human.’ Photo by Hummingbird

Art Haus’ 2017 success inspired them to return in 2018—”This year we were much better about the crowds; we had megaphones and caution tape, and secured a perimeter,” Wise said with a laugh. And, to match Burning Man theme I, Robot, Dekkers choreographed a piece to Steve Reich’s “Eight Lines” called “We, Human,” which incorporated giant puppets and futuristic costumes, performed beneath a humungous 80-foot-diameter, 35-ton reflective orb.

Art Haus performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, too, set at a huge Baba Yaga house on chicken feet with interactive robotic sheep, and, fabulously, a sunrise rendition of Terry Riley’s intensely collaborative “In C.” “We really want to continue to pair music with an experience that activates all the senses,” Hogarth said. “Not just visual, not just sonic, but something that really embraces the visceral moments you can have at Burning Man.”      

In January this year, Art Haus approached The SF Symphony to see if they could work together, and was told about the upcoming Stravinsky festival. “It was perfect,” Wise said, “because we could bring some of our experiences, some of our playa magic, back to the default world. I think that’s so relevant to San Francisco right now, because there are so many burners here, and there’s so much love of the collaborative arts. It felt like us coming together with the Symphony would be the right way to celebrate Stravinsky.”

In the lobby this weekend, Art Haus will be performing to pieces that were either inspired by Stravinsky—like “Syrinx,” Claude Debussy’s piece for solo flute, that will accompany a contortionist—or that inspired Stravinsky himself. The Art Haus players will be wearing their playa costumes, albeit dusted off a bit. And there are many surprises in store.

“At Burning Man, we really like the idea that through Art Haus we’re bringing classical music that people might not normally encounter, serious pieces, to an audience that can appreciate it in that specific context and then may be like, OK I get it now. And maybe they’ll follow that new interest to the San Francisco Symphony,” Wise said. 

“Now, with this pre-show, we’re doing the reverse of that,” Wise said, “bringing the spirit of Burning Man to the symphony. Hopefully that will bring a different perspective to what they may think of Burning Man. There are some negative connotations about what’s out there, or people may not know what it is. But we want to show that there is real art and music happening, and we’re real artists.”

Hogarth said, “One of the great things about Burning Man is that you can just wander and have accidental amazing experiences. The way we’re setting up the pre-show is similar to that. We’re going to have dancers and musicians scattered around, and for people who don’t know what to expect, or don’t even know what’s happening, there will be this element of wonderful surprise.”

REBELLIOUS BEAUTY: THE RITE OF SPRING
Through Sun/30
Art Haus performs for 90 minutes before show. 
Davies Symphony Hall, SF. 
More info here