One hundred years ago on May 29, 1913; art sparked a riot.
Well, "riot" might be too strong a word. But when the audience in Paris' Theater des Champs Elysees heard the first notes of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," the catcalls began. They got even louder when the dancers of Ballets Russes appeared on stage, clad in heavy wool costumes, their legs bandaged in thick stockings that were secured, peasant-style, with wide dark ribbons. And as soon as the classically trained ballet dancers began to stomp, to jump up and down on two feet, to stand with toes pointed inward rather than the more traditional ballet pose, by all accounts the audience went crazy.
"Rite of Spring," (Sacre du Printemps) was commissioned by Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev. Like any good businessman, Diaghilev wanted to sell tickets. And perhaps he knew that nothing attracts spectators more than a hint of controversy.
"Rite of Spring" was on the bill with an earlier dance, "Les Sylphides," a romantic style ballet. Diaghilev knew "Rite of Spring" would not conform to the expectations of an audience accustomed to gauze-clad ethereal performers. He had instructed conductor Pierre Monteux to keep the orchestra playing, no matter what happened. According to writer, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who was in the audience,"all the material needed for a scandal" had been assembled.
Even before the premiere, held on an unseasonably hot May evening, stories had started to circulate that choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had lost control of his his dancers and that the orchestra members were totally flummoxed by Stravinsky's complex score.
Many members of the Paris avant-garde were in attendance that night to see what the two artists were up to; so were the wealthier ballet patrons who helped fund the company. By the time the dancers took the stage to perform what was essentially a fertility ritual that culminated with a virgin sacrifice, the audience was hot, uncomfortable and ready to react to whatever came their way.
And react they did. The performance was panned by most critics, and Stravinsky tried to distance himself from Nijinsky's raw choreography. Reportedly, both artists left the theater with Diaghilev before the performance ended.
A century later, audiences flock to hear Stravinsky's ground-breaking music. Seattle Symphony musicians, conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot, received an ear-splitting ovation at a recent performance. The symphony's principal bassoonist Seth Krimsky said "Rite of Spring" has influenced every musician who came after Stravinsky. He calls it "rock and roll before there was rock and roll."
Despite the underwhelming response to Vaslav Nijinsky's original choreography, "Rite of Spring" has also influenced hundreds of dancers who have tried their hands at crafting movement to the rhythmically complex score. Wim Wenders' 2012 film "Pina" revived interest in German choreographer Pina Bausch's raw version of "Rite of Spring."
The Canadian dance troupe Compagnie Marie Chouinard brought its version of "Rite of Spring" to Seattle in early 2013, to rave reviews. Although Nijinsky's original choreography died after a London production in 1913, it was reconstructed for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer.
Videos of that reconstruction hint at the reasons behind the 1913 audience reaction. Nijinsky's "Rite" was unlike anything that had been onstage up to that point. Some dance scholars describe it as the precursor to modern dance. Perhaps it was a door that opened for George Balanchine, another Russian dancer who arrived in Paris ten years later and struck up his own fruitful collaboration with Stravinsky.
Love it or hate it, "Rite of Spring" still stands as a symbol of artistic ambition, of experimentation, of an attempt to reach beyond the boundaries of what defined art. According to bassoonist Krimsky, "There is
no way to over-celebrate that."