Spring Rite

By Indi Stilling

It’s the 29th May 1913 and the second season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris is in full swing. People flock to the theatre in anticipation of experiencing something new and cutting-edge, however, nothing could have prepared them for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. From the second the show opened, with a bassoon solo playing a chilling piece inspired by Lithuanian folklore, people were outraged. The show continued down this surreal path telling the tale of pagan rituals, celebrating the coming of spring, and then finally ending with a sacrificial victim dancing to her death. So how did this haunting piece of work end up paving the way for the future of dance and film music? Often when new works are produced within the Arts it’s not seen at that time as good but it is seen at a later date as brilliant. Vital to keeping the creative arts moving forward disruptive creativity paves a way forward. Find out more here in Spring Rite

Despite the Ballet Russes having a reputation for being avant-garde, it was apparent that this show was beyond that. Originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the premiere performance will always be an important part of our history because of the scandal that was caused.

The music, played by an orchestra of 100 people, followed an irregular rhythm and constant shifting beats. The use of a large variety of instruments created a sound that was supposed to mimic the power of Russian village music from which Stravinsky took his inspiration. But this chaotic mix was not something that the Parisian elites were used to and caused shouts of anger from the very first beat.

The dancing followed this by using irregular movements. When they started their performance they did not float across the stage as the music flowed like in Swan Lake, because there was no flow to the music. There were no pointe shoes and pirouettes, instead, they paraded across the stage with inward-turned feet and graceless jumps. The audience was listening to music that appeared to be dragging the dancers to the ground instead of lifting them up. The lack of leaps perhaps symbolised the sacredness of the Earth in the pagan rituals they were acting out.

As the audience cried out in disgust at this outrageous display, the composer himself could take no more and stormed out of the audience to watch from the wings instead. The house lights were switched on and off repeatedly in order to try and calm the crowd down but it appeared that nothing could quieten them down, even with the police arriving and making 40 arrests. In fact, the anger was so heightened that two people agreed to a duel the following morning.

At its peak, the audience was so loud that the poor dancers could not hear the music so they tried to continue dancing from counts being shouted by the choreographer behind the scenes. They took the phrase ‘the show must go on’ very literally. Their determination of them to carry on shows the power of this piece.

The performance rejected the traditional composition of ordered harmonies that the audience was used to seeing which showed how the piece was constructed in an almost geometric way. This cube-like method was also reflected in the choreography as the dancers jutted their bodies around to the irregular melodies. The movements were described as being grotesque caricatures, as they stomped around and moved their bodies in ways different from the traditional ballets.

The finale featured a sacrificial dance. The dancer took to the stage and uncomfortably moved her body around to the everchanging music which seemed to switch time signatures at every bar, creating a unique rhythm. She convulsed and twisted until she could take no more and collapsed to the stage floor as the final chord struck to announce the end of the performance.

Whilst the performers persevered throughout the ruckus the audience did not. The piece finally came to a close with a much smaller audience than it started with.

In order to fully understand the backlash that this received it is important to understand Parisian society during this period. There were two diverse groups in the audience that night; the wealthy, fashionable group who were going to see a traditional ballet with beautiful choreography and the bohemian who opposed everything that those in the boxes loved. The romantics and modernists.

So, did they have an issue with the music or the dancing?

It would appear that maybe it was the latter as the performance was deemed a failure but when it was performed a few months later as a stand-alone piece without the dancers it was called a genius piece of work. The dancing was described by critics as being like ugly grotesque movements.

However you could also make the argument that the issue was not necessarily with the piece itself but because it was not something that people were used to seeing, they protested against it. It was new and represented the unknown.

On the other hand, for the group of modernists, it represented something new and exciting. A work of genius. This is why this composition is deemed as being one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century because it can be seen as the start of modernity. A new era of art where there are really no rules and anything goes.

Despite all the negativity it had at the time, the influence of The Rite of Spring has seeped into many film soundtracks over the last 100 years. Disney started the hype off by featuring pieces of the music in their 1940 animation Fantasia.

From there the only way was up. Remember the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho in 1960? Well, Bernard Herrmann took inspiration from the blunt orchestral beats that Stravinsky was using to create this feeling of tension and to create fear within the viewers much like the original piece of music.

The list of influences goes on, from Jaws to Star Wars, and people cannot seem to forget about this iconic composition.

This influence extends to the dance industry as well. As the innovative rhythms and asymmetry represent the rejection of the impressionistic ideals of Parisian society and therefore created the beginning of modernism. It opened society’s eyes to the fact that ballet, and dance in general, can be so much more than pirouettes and leaps. It does not have to be soft and fluid, it can be stiff and jolting.

The power of Stravinsky within contemporary dance can be seen in Israel Galvan’s upcoming UK premiere performance at the Sadler Wells on the 25th and 26th of November. Titled ‘La Consagracion de la Primavera (Rite of Spring)’, Galvan’s performance weaves flamenco with the score of The Rite of Spring, reconstructing tradition in the process. Accompanying him on the stage is two pianists, Daria van den Bercken and Gerard Bouwhuis, who contrast this score with other musical works, Sonata K87 by Domenico Scarlatti and Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues by Frederic Rzewski.

He allows Stravinsky’s score to consume him as he moves around the stage to an irregular rhythm. Combining these two contrasts, the flamenco and Russian musical composition, he shows that there are no limits to modern-day dance. This dance is a re-evaluation of the possibilities of the flamenco dance.

Traditionally the flamenco is a highly personal dance that features a sensuous display of flowing movement. Male dancers traditionally use intricate footwork whilst females use exaggerated movements of the upper torso and hips. Galvan uses all these movements combined with flowing hand and wrist movements to create a gender-neutral performance, whilst still including the stomping and jerking of The Rite of Spring creating something completely different from what Nijinsky originally crafted.

It might not make sense to pair something so fluid with something so irregular yet it works. His movements are harsh but also graceful at the same time creating something so beautiful that you will not be able to keep your eyes away. Galvan breaks all the rules in this captivating performance that you will not want to miss out on seeing, it is sure to receive a better response than Stravinsky’s premiere of The Rite of Spring.

You can find out more and book your tickets here.

If you enjoyed this then check out, Sound in Situ

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