The scandalous rite of 1913

By Sheri Candler

May 29, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the premiere of perhaps the most scandalous dance work of the twentieth century, Ballets Russes’ Le Sacre du Printemps. Over the next few posts, we will take a look at this piece and why it is significant that the Joffrey Ballet worked to reconstruct it for modern audiences.

As many of you know, Sergei Diaghilev, a Russian immigrant, is known as the impressario of ballet for the early 20th century. His Paris based Ballets Russes set the standard of what a modern ballet company would look like, blending the classical traditions of European ballet training with uniquely modern costume design, themes and music and extensively touring his company around the world. The Ballets Russes was strongly influential to American companies like American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet (Balanchine was once the ballet master of the Ballets Russes) and the Joffrey Ballet.

Diaghilev’s early collaborations with music composer Igor Stravinsky gave the world 3 renowned ballets. Stravinsky’s work, Fireworks, brought him to the attention of Diaghilev who commissioned a ballet with this music based on the Firebird legend (The Firebird or  L’Oiseau de Feu with choreography by Mikhail Fokine premiered in 1910). It was a huge success, so two more ballets were commissioned, resulting in Petrouchka (also choreographed by Fokine and premiered in 1911 and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky). These 3 pieces sealed Stravinsky’s reputation as the first modernist composer of the new century.

Until this time, balletomanes were primarily fed a diet of staid classical pieces from the traditions of ballet, rooted in the court dances of Louis XIV’s reign and Italian pantomime. Choreographers like Petipa, Bournonville, Cecchetti and Saint Leon were responsible for many of the works of the 19th century and several ballets, such as La Sylphide which was also on the same performance program of the Ballets Russes the night Sacre premiered, still survive today. But these pieces were largely regarded as “pretty” dancing and did not challenge the audience with drama and themes of savagery and carnal lust like Sacre.

The piece is actually a collaboration of 3 artists; Diaghilev’s prime choreographer Nijinsky, Stravinsky and Nicholas Roerich who was a Russian scenic designer strongly influenced by ancient cultures and their practices. The ballet was meant to express the primitive rites of ancient man as he welcomed spring by making a sacrifice to the Sun God and it was a story unlike any ballet before it provoking controversy that would continue for many years.

There is also some discrepancy over who actually first came up with the idea for the ballet, Stravinsky or Roerich? Some contend that Stravinsky came up with the idea for the music first and consulted with Roerich because of his knowledge of pagan rituals. In his later life, Stravinsky also claimed to have contributed to the choreography because at the time, Nijinsky was so inexperienced as a choreographer, he could not easily work with the difficult musical composition. Indeed, both the music and the original choreography were so complex that later Joffrey dancers cite this as the most challenging part of learning and rehearsing the piece.

That night in May 1913 was remembered by those who attended as a raucous evening not soon forgotten. “The theater seemed to be shaken by an earthquake. It shuddered. People shouted insults, howled and whistled, drowning out the music. There was slapping and even punching…the ballet was astoundingly beautiful.”  Stunned by the complicated and unusual music and defiantly non classical dancing, the audience made up of Paris’ elite class rebelled either from emotional excitement or outrage at the lack of convention. The following video gives a good  reenactment of the scene as imagined by the BBC in their made for TV film Riot at the Rite

There is an account by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer about the making of this TV movie and their roles in it here.

Le Sacre du Printemps would see 5 subsequent performances at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees which were all relatively peaceful and then several performances in London’s Theatre Royal. Ultimately, Nijinsky’s choreography was scrapped in favor of a 1920 reconstituted version choreographed by Leonide Massine. It would not be until 1987 that the world would see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original work, this time in Los Angeles.

resources for this post: The Success of a Scandal, Michael Cooke; Biography of Nicholas Roerich; Wikipedia; NPR;

For more imagery, see our Pinterest board devoted to Le Sacre du Printemps




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