10. RITUAL ACTION: DARK BEAUTY / by Nathan Webster

The below post is the tenth in a series of 13 texts related to NOW-ID's 2019 Rite of Spring taking place on June 22 in Salt Lake City, loosely following the 13 episodes in Stravinsky's score. Ritual Action: Dark Beauty is by Kate Mattingly, Assistant Professor at the University of Utah. Get your tickets to the performance here.

Looking at costume designs by Mallory Prucha for NOW-id’s Rite of Spring alongside drawings by Nicholas Roerich for the 1913 version, there are striking similarities: the red, black, and white palette, the angular poses of dancers’ bodies.

"Three Figures (A Youth and Maidens), Act I" by Nicholas Roerich is a 1912 tempera, watercolor, ceruse, pencil, bronze and silver on paper

"Three Figures (A Youth and Maidens), Act I" by Nicholas Roerich is a 1912 tempera, watercolor, ceruse, pencil, bronze and silver on paper

And there are differences: instead of intricate patterns around the hem, Prucha’s pants for the dancers appear worn and shredded. They suggest that these dancers have already been through the exhausting ritual and are now performing the dance for a third or fourth time. There’s a compelling tension between the durability of the fabric––which Prucha calls “Monk’s Cloth”––and the wear and tear created by dancing. Instead of peasant-like blouses, dancers in NOW-id’s version will wear body-paint. The deterioration of the paint as dancers sweat and partner one another adds to a sense of disintegration.

Instead of a ritual that begins with pristine garments, NOW-id’s Rite of Spring presents a more somber view. Costumes by Prucha enrich this atmosphere. Charlotte Boye-Christensen says Prucha is her “aesthetic-soulmate,” and multiple times during our conversation, she repeats how grateful she is to be working with Prucha.

Rite of Spring marks their first collaboration, starting with the version performed in February of 2019 in Lubbock where Prucha is an Assistant Professor of Costume Design at Texas Tech University. This summer Prucha is working with Utah Festival Opera in Logan and continuing the collaboration with NOW-id for the Salt Lake City iteration of Rite. “There’s something really valuable in starting a conversation, and then continuing that conversation,” says Boye-Christensen of their collaboration. “It is unusual, and a luxury in creative work, to see a first iteration, then a second, and a third.”

When Prucha and Boye-Christensen return to Lubbock this fall, they will present the third iteration on a much larger cast for three nights in mid-October in a cotton gin shed. Prucha’s decision to use the cotton, “Monk’s Cloth” material for the costumes will be apt for this setting.

This fabric also adds to the industrial setting of the performance this month. It is functional and heavy, suggesting a worker’s attire or pagan costume. There’s also a long history of the material being used for embroidery and associated with “women’s work.” The sturdiness of Monk’s Cloth was attractive to Prucha because it symbolized the strength of women who have produced textiles for centuries. Referring to a book by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, called Women’s Work: The first 20,000 Years, Prucha adds that women have been at the forefront of fabric manufacturing, in part because they could make textiles while cooking, taking care of homes, and raising children. In contrast to the narrative of the 1913 Rite, that a woman must be sacrificed for a community’s well-being, this version foregrounds ideas of female empowerment.

As she created the choreography, Boye-Christensen found that she was inspired by the voluminous pants by Prucha: “The costume designs are feeding the choreography. When I saw the pants I started creating these low walks that made the costumes look like a skirt.” She adds that she loves how the costumes suggest both dresses and warriors’ garments.

Instead of making the dancing look smooth or streamlined, Boye-Christensen is intentionally keeping the movement “awkward.” She likes how this alludes to pagan rites that are performed by a community of people rather than by trained artists. The body paint contributes to this idea of ritual action by disintegrating as the dancers perform: in other words, the ritual generates its impact by being lived and experienced. The blurring of paint leaves traces and residues, much like the patina that covers most of the surfaces under the overpass and in the foundry. This layering makes visible the dancers’ labor, and their exhaustion.

When she is not designing for opera, dance, and musical theatre, Prucha works on composite drawings for law enforcement, and recently completed a sketch for the Lubbock Police Department. She talks about this part of her research as connected to her theatrical productions because both are about understanding archetypes and aesthetic frameworks.

“Costumes speak about identity and communicate ideas about character traits,” says Prucha. “There’s a quote I love, that defines ‘character’ as the essence of an idea.” Her designs for the Rite of Spring operate as both an added layer of communication, and a barometer of the performance’s exertion. Her costumes will absorb the sweat and toil of the dancing, becoming tangible artifacts for a fleeting art form.

Drawings above by costume designer Mallory Prucha.

Drawings above by costume designer Mallory Prucha.