Many of my friends wouldn’t truthfully say that a ballet is revolutionary. But critics in the know, call Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring” one of the greatest works of art of the 20th Century. Today is the 100th anniversary of “The Rite Of Spring’s” premier performance.
The setting: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, May 29, 1913. The show begins with the most peculiar, highest, most vulnerable bassoon solo in the history of classical music. It blends into a complex, discordant mixture of woodwinds. The curtain is drawn and the audience sees several knock-kneed, long-braided Lolitas leaping up and down. The opening number, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreographed “Dance of the Adolescents” had begun. At that moment, the audience erupted into an unruly riot.
According to composer Stravinsky’s, own account, he said cries of “shut up” came from behind. He claimed he’d never been so angry as on that evening. Stravinsky left the concert hall in a rage of fury and spent the remainder of the performance backstage with Nijinsky while the choreographer shouted out cues to the dancers.
The program was composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company’s 1913 Paris ballet season. Stravinsky was still relatively unknown at the time. He had two prior critically acclaimed productions before Rite. They were, “The Firebird” of 1910, and “Petrushka” of 1911.
It must be remembered that Vaslav Nijinsky was the Russian dancer of Polish descent, who was widely acclaimed as the greatest male dancer of the 20th Century. He was a troubled and controversial celebrity during his life. It might be Nijinsky’s notoriety that inspired the initial negative reaction from the opening night audience.
The outline of the ballet is suggested by the Rite’s subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”. The action takes place at the dawning of springtime. A young girl is chosen as a human sacrifice; she must dance herself to death. There is no overt plot, but the theme is arranged as a musical-choreographic piece. The major idea is the surge and creative power of springtime. The program is a series of vignettes.
Part two is “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)”. This is performed in six sections. This is where the sacrificial victim is selected from a group of young girls. It all culminates in the “Danse Sacrale”. This is where the chosen one dances to her death in front of the assembled elders.
There is some small controversy as to whether or not the audience response was that of a riot or if it was merely a publicity stunt. There is discussion that the melee was willfully orchestrated and then, in turn, has evolved in the form of a sort of urban legend that has been embellished in the frequent retelling.
The idea that “The Rite of Spring” was so avant-gard is also in dispute. There had been earlier attempts at similar music and dance spectacles, but the Rite is still known as the most outrageous of them all. Music and ballet critics almost universally say the piece is the most influential one of the past century.
Not only is “The Rite Of Spring” a masterpiece ballet, the score is sufficient enough to stand on its own. The music is frequently played in concert halls without any accompanying dancers.
If you are ever privilaged enough to attend a live performance of the ballet, you will be moved to the point of believing that you are personally the sacrificial chosen one because of the savagely spellbinding music and choreography.
Do you enjoy avant-gard art? If so, the Blue Jay of Happiness recommends the version of “Danse Sacrale” at this link: http://youtu.be/s7pV2cX0qxs