The Joffrey Ballet\'s \"The Rite of Spring\"

The Rite Stuff

As TITAS brings in the Joffrey Ballet's recreation of Nijinksy's original The Rite of Spring, we look at the significance of Stravinsky's groundbreaking music.

published Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"I think The Rite of Spring is the most singularly influential piece of music in the 20th century. It still makes me go wow!"

This quote, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, sums up the continued impact of Stravinsky's 1913 ballet, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

Chicago's famed Joffrey Ballet will bring its recreation of the original riot-inducing production of Le Sacre du Printemps to the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House on Jan. 18 and 19, as part of the TITAS season. It's the first time the Joffrey has been to Dallas in two decades, and this is the first of several tributes to the work coming this year, which also includes a new version from Southern Methodist University's Meadows Dance Ensemble in April.

Legendary ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev had a sure bet in Stravinsky, whose Firebird had been such a success in 1912. However, he took a wild chance on giving the task of choreographing the piece to the astoundingly gifted, but erratic and unpredictable, Vlaslav Nijinsky, his première danceur noble as well as his lover. Watching the original choreography, as curated by the Joffery (which can be seen on YouTube), it isn't difficult to imagine the reaction of the shocked Parisian audience when Diaghilev's Ballets Russes first unleashed Le Sacre du Printemps at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. 

You have to remember that this was the genteel dance crowd on opening night—as opposed to a concert audience. They were accustomed to graceful motions, exquisite ballerinas floating across the stage en pointe, flowing lines, pointed toes, rustling tutus, and men executing powerful leaps in perfect form. Instead, they got men in menacing bear suits, stomping feet, a brawl punctuated by fisticuffs, women hopping in the air whipping five-foot long braids while dressed in stiff and mid-calf peasant dresses that had no flow. There were bodies writhing inelegantly on the floor, pigeon-toed foot positions, cramped hands and angular arms. At the work's climax, there was no graceful dying ballerina sinking to the stage with fluttering hands. Instead, Nijinsky presented a woman dancing herself to death leaping spasmodicically into the air.

Dancer Matthew Adamczyk, who is in the Joffrey recreation, says that Nijinsky's choreography was, "meant to shock and awe."

"Aggression, hunched positions, stomping, bent feet and hands," he says. "Everything you would imagine a classical dancer to look like—this is the opposite."

It wasn't long into the performance before the rival jeers and the supportive cheers gave way to physical confrontations. Things went downhill from there. According to Francis Routh's biography of the composer, aside from general chaos and little old ladies beating each other with umbrellas, "About 50 combatants [in the audience] stripped naked and were taken into police custody."

However, when the score was performed soon afterward as a concert piece, things were completely different. It proved an amazing success and the ecstatic crowd carried Stravinsky, like a liberating general, on their shoulders through the streets.

"The Rite of Spring is the piece without which 20th century music wouldn't be possible," says Jaap van Zweden, Music Director of the Dallas Symphony. "All music after is somehow indebted to this piece."

A telling assessment comes from Dallas-based composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez.

"Along with Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, Stravinsky's  Rite of Spring is the greatest musical masterpiece of the 20th century," Rodriguez says. "It has always forced listeners to take a stand: to be actively for it or against it; no one can be passive."

"Everyone thinks that the riot at the 1913 premiere in Paris was caused by a uniformly outraged public," he continues. "On the contrary, the riot was caused by fist fights between detractors and supporters. Conservatives such as Saint-Saëns booed, while progressives such as Debussy cheered. Today, composers are still carrying Rite's weight on their backs. Just as the generation of composers after Beethoven followed Beethoven's lead in sometimes contradictory ways, composers today working in many different styles are all helping themselves to liberal doses of The Rite of Spring."

Rodriguez points to a quote by Jean Cocteau: "A creative artist cannot copy; therefore, in order to create, an artist only needs to try to copy." 

"The best of today's concert composers have absorbed Stravinsky's legacy and have interpreted his discoveries, each in his/her uniquely personal way," Rodriguez says. "In that sense, The Rite of Spring continues to inspire us all, both in its original form and in its enormous influence."

However, it was the choreography, and its repudiation of everything that was expected of a ballet, that created such an uproar on opening night.

After a few additional performances, the ballet was scrapped. Nijinsky inexplicably ran off and got married and the distraught Diaghilev had the ballet rechoreographed in 1920 by Leonide Massine. Nijinsky's contortions passed into legend and the specifics largely forgotten. No matter that he launched the entire modern dance movement with his ballet and that it was a short hop from there to Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris.

In fact, watching the Joffery dance the Nijinsky version today, it is amazingly reflective of every note of Stravinsky's remarkable score and conveys the primitivisms in a most elemental manner. Yet, it still can raise eyebrows.

Stravinsky didn't like Nijinsky's take on his ballet and blamed him for the failure and attendant riot. He was correct in a way. Although the music was about as far from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake or Adolphe Adam's gooey Giselle as you could get, it was the totally "out there" choreography and its "in your face" repudiation of everything that was expected of ballet, that made the work so fiercely controversial.

That is where things sat for decades. Other choreographers that followed, including Maurice Bejart, Kenneth MacMillan, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch, and even North Texas' Bruce Wood, took over and designed ballets that might have even surprised Nijinsky.

With the anniversary of that eventful premiere approaching, Robert Joffrey, director of the Joffrey Ballet, got the idea that the original choreography might be resurrected.

Millicent Hodson, an American dance historian, and her husband, Kenneth Archer, a British art historian, took on the challenge. Hodson had been on the trail since the 1970s when the ballet was the subject of her doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1981, she married Archer, who was an expert on Nicholas Roerich, who designed the modernist sets and costumes.

Decades of scholarship finally resulted in what audiences will see here in Dallas this weekend. As though transported back in time, you will be able to experience what caused the musical scandal of the century. Nijinsky's choreography and Roerish's sets and costumes will once again take center stage as part of the Joffery's national tour. 

Let's hope that Dallas audiences remain better behaved and fully clothed.


◊ At 6:45 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, before the Joffrey performance, TITAS artistic director Charles Santos will hold a pre-show discussion about Le Sacre du Printemps.


◊ Here is a look at Joffrey Ballet's Le Sacre du Printemps, with interviews with Hodson and others: 


Other tributes to The Rite of Spring this year include:

  • Ballet Austin will perform a version by artistic director Stephen Mills, at the Long Center in Austin, Feb. 15-17 MORE INFO
  • The Houston Ballet will perform a version by artistic director Stanton Welch, March 7-17 at the Wortham Center in Houston MORE INFO 
  • Southern Methodist University's Meadows Dance Ensemble will perform a new version choreographed by Dutch choreographer Joost Vrouenraets in its Spring Dance Concert, April 12-14,  in the Bob Hope Theatre at SMU, Dallas MORE INFO
  • The Bolshoi Ballet does a new version by Wayne McGregor, which can be seen nationwide on movie screens in the Ballet in Cinema series, April 21 and 23, although as of now, no North Texas theaters are showing this series. The closest is in Tyler MORE INFO


And here is Pina Bausch's version:

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The Rite Stuff
As TITAS brings in the Joffrey Ballet's recreation of Nijinksy's original The Rite of Spring, we look at the significance of Stravinsky's groundbreaking music.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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