Countdown to the Rite of Spring-Part 4 of 5

Rite-of-spring v2-2

Aggressively Anti-Balletic Vaslav Nijinsky will live on as the first modernist choreographer and one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century. In his twenties he made a series of ballets that, as Joan Acocella notes in The New Yorker: “…challenged academic dance as Picasso, around the same time, was challenging painting. “ In The Rite of Spring, his third work, he went even further. “The spectators were shown an ancient Slavic tribe, at the beginning of spring, calling on their gods to renew the earth — a concession won, in the end, by human sacrifice. At the ballet’s conclusion, a young girl danced herself to death. The choreography was aggressively anti-balletic. The dancers stood hunched over, turned in. They shuddered; they stamped. In the words of Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava, they seemed ‘almost bestial.’”

A Barbaric Vision Ismene Brown of writes: “Nijinsky intended to make a barbaric vision that threw out civilised beauties and showed a pagan mob whipping themselves into frenzy, with pigeon-toed movements that had no recognisable connection with ballet or even with folk-dance.”

Read Brown’s full article about the impact of The Rite on the world of dance: (English only).

The Sacrificial Dance The Sacrificial Dance section is described as particularly chilling. As Tom Service notes: “Using every note and phrase of the composer’s astounding sounds, the ‘chosen one’ is caught in an unstoppable rhythmic vortex from which there is only one way out: through the terrible dissonance that ends the piece, and the single chord that kills her.”

Watch Beatriz Rodriguez dance the role of the Chosen One in The Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 reconstruction of the original Nijinsky choreography:

Nerveless Monteux Nijinsky was forced to shout out cues to his dancers from the wings over the ruckus from the audience. And although the conductor, Pierre Monteux, remembered that “everything available was tossed in our direction” by the audience, Stravinsky was highly impressed that Monteux remained as “nerveless as a crocodile” throughout the entire ordeal.

Engaging the Audience The accounts of that night are as numerous as the possible causes for the scandal. Outrage, excitement, insults and — depending on the source — punches, probably all ensued. In his 1989 award-winning book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins proposes that the débacle might have had less to do with the music and ballet than the audience itself: “Where does all this confusion leave us? Is there not sufficient evidence to suggest that the trouble was caused more by warring factions in the audience, by their expectations, their prejudices, their preconceptions about art, than by the work itself? The work… certainly exploited tensions, but hardly caused them. The descriptions of the memoirists and even the accounts of the critics are immersed in the scandale rather than the music and ballet, in the event rather than the art… To have been in the audience that evening was to have participated (…) in the very creation of modern art.”

Check out a clip from the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky depicting the audience’s reaction to the premiere of The Rite of Spring: (French only).

Social Context As Paul-John Ramos writes ( “Audiences may have been caught off-guard by Le Sacre’s uninhibited passion and violence, but it certainly fit the mood of its era: Europe was caught up in nationalistic frenzies, driving herself to the brink of World War I; the continent was plagued by widespread depression; and the basic values of western society, amidst such pains, were being heavily questioned by the intelligentsia. When Le Sacre is viewed in the social context from which it was born, there is good reason for the rage and angst that Stravinsky conveys.”

Read more from Ramos about Stravinsky’s iconic score here: (English only).

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