The haute bourgeoisie of Paris were appalled. The music was bad enough, said some, cacophonous and unmelodic. But the dancing! Sacre bleu! Nothing ethereal or elegant about it. Stomping about, no toe shoes or tutus, to a primitive and ugly narrative. Factions of the audience yelled and screamed and booed. Men came to blows. The police had to be called to the theater to help restore order. Little more than a year later, the sons of France were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands on the killing fields along the river Marne near the City of Lights. Modernity had arrived in the arts, and in war.
May 29, 1913 marked the premiere of “The Rite of Spring” at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a collaboration of composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. The story-line was a folk ritual for the coming of spring. At its climax, a maiden, “The Chosen,” dances to her death, an act of communal propitiation to ensure the change of seasons and the continuity of life.
The “Rite of Spring” was performed by the Ballets Russes, an extraordinary venture that featured the finest ballet dancers of the day in works created by Europe’s most forward thinking and gifted composers, choreographers, and visual artists.
Nijinsky, perhaps the most noted theatrical dancer of his time and a star performer of the Ballets Russes, had recently emerged as a choreographer with a decidedly experimental bent. His first effort, 1912’s highly eroticized “Afternoon of a Faun,” imagined a Grecian urn come to life as a “tableau vivant.”
As a choreographer, Nijinsky avoided the formalism of the classical ballet, employing a movement theater that was strikingly avant garde for the time — walks, slow turns, expressionistic character development, facings directed away from the audience, far different and more naturalistic than accepted ballet conventions.
Many arts historians feel that the strong reaction to “Rite of Spring’s” debut was less in response to Stravinsky’s multi-metered and dramatic score than to Nijinsky’s powerfully direct choreography and staging, which emphasized the raw, graphic (for its time) elements of “pagan” society. At the time, many viewers thought it all brutalism, devoid of poetry and beauty. Others, however championed its bravery and newness.
Stravinsky’s score for “Rite of Spring” went on to great success as an influential orchestral favorite, but Nijinsky’s choreography lasted for only a few performances, falling victim to the baroque politics of the Ballets Russes and its own artistic strangeness. Rite was the last fully realized dance created by the extraordinarily gifted Nijinsky, who descended into madness in the remaining years of his life.
A century later “The Rite of Spring” is still catnip to choreographers. The concept of Nijinsky’s work and the drama of Stravinsky’s music has been the source of inspiration for a legion of dance interpreters, including Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, Maurice Bejart and Shen Wei. Even Walt Disney got into the act in his 1940 “Fantasia.”
To commemorate this year’s 100th anniversary of the premiere of the “Rite of Spring,” the University of Washington is presenting a series of performances and lectures over the next several months. A highlight will be the debut at Meany Hall’s World Dance Series of Montreal’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard. They will present her 1993 version of the “Rite of Spring” January 24-26, accompanied by a live performance of the score by the UW Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jonathan Pasternack.
A noted solo dancer for 12 years prior to the founding of her company in 1990, Chouinard’s highly theatrical work, expressive and often erotically charged, seems like a good fit for The Rite. Those who saw her “Orpheus and Eurydice” at On the Boards in 2008 will appreciate her ability to stir things up around myth, human archetypes, and the evocative power of movement, not to mention the use of a few naughty props here and there.
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