Most famous as the ballet that started a riot at its premiere, ‘The Rite of Spring’ features music composed by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and an original choreography by the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950). It represented a radical departure from both Stravinsky’s previous work and the ‘traditional’ ballet of pirouettes and tutus. In other words, it’s a Modernist work produced slightly too early – it premiered in 1913, at the very end of La Belle Époque – hence the riots.
Actually they weren’t particularly impressive as riots go: a bunch of Bohemians in the stalls trading insults with the Bourgeoisie in the boxes because the latter objected to the ‘savage and barbaric’ work with which they were presented while the former were delighted by it. Stravinsky retreated to the wings, but the most disruptive patrons were ejected, possibly by the police, and the show went on.
So what makes the Rite so different?
For a start, it’s the dancing. Forget the pirouettes and the pointe. Forget the delicate, ethereal movements of the corps, and the erect muscularity of the lead danseur. Both the dance style and the music were strongly influenced by non-European and pre-Christian Russian ritualistic dances with their heavy drum-beat and rhythmic movements.
And then there’s the story-line. In the first Act the dancers gather to worship the earth in an increasingly passionate ecstasy led by several elders. In the second Act the maidens of the tribe gather to dance under the moonlight. But their dance has a sinister purpose: when one dancer stumbles twice she is singled out and pushed to the centre of the circle. For long moments she stands in dejected solitude while the other maidens, joined by some of the male dancers from earlier, circle around her. Then she springs to life, leaping and reaching in a seeming frenzy. She falls, she rises, she falls again, until finally she falls for the final time – dead. The ballet ends as the sacrifice is lifted aloft by her peers.
These days it’s the dubious racial undertones which are most likely to offend, but it’s easy to see how in 1913, when cinema was in its infancy and television didn’t exist, such a brutal tale would shock an audience accustomed to the glamour and artifice of traditional ballet.
What did I make of it? To be honest I appreciated it more for its historic significance than its story-line or artistic merit. Because of that I’m glad I watched it.