Cover photo: Original cast for 1913 performance including choreographer Najinksy (left)
Over one hundred years ago, The Ballet Russes performed a show that became a seminal projection of modernity in the art world. This show was The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky. The Ballet Russes was a ballet company based in Paris and ran from 1909 to 1929. Originally created by Sergei Diaghilev, it is now widely renowned as one of the most influential ballet companies of the 20th century, often commissioning famous artists of the time such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vasily Kandinsky, fashion designer Coco Chanel and composer Sergei Prokofiev.
The Rite of Spring has become known as a boundary breaking piece as it fought against every tradition known in ballet and composing. It was dubbed both groundbreaking and scandalous at its premiere at the Theatre de Champs-Elysee on May 29th 1913 but was indicative of a broader changing movement at the time. The music and choreography was deemed barbaric, brutalist and completely dissonant, which caused the crowd to boo and jeer so much that the dancers were unable to hear their cues.The show was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinksy who wanted to portray Russian folk tales with chaotic percussive movements. As much as it is remembered as a scandalous theatre piece, many articles contradict each other; was it the music or the choreography that scandalised the crowd, did the audience riot, and were the police called?
According to many, it was definitely the music. Stravinky’s music did perturb the audience, taking cues from Russian and Lithuanian folk tales and music and being played ear-splittingly loud, it caused the members of the crowd unease from the opening scene. As did the choreography. Najinksy took inspiration from the music and historical dance to bring something considered ‘primitive’ to the trained ballet world. An example of this is when the curtain lifted for the opening act, the audience saw a row of knocked-kneed, long braided lolita’s who seemed to jerk instead of dance not upright beautiful creatures as expected.
During all the uproars and jeering there were few observers who realised they were witnessing something new and exciting. One of those observers was the poet T. S. Eliot who felt that what made the performance unsettling was the mixture of primitive and modern in both music and choreography.
This, I think, is the perfect example of how boundary pushing performance and theatre can be, and also why we shouldn’t be scared of the modern, or something we haven’t seen before. As much as you want theatre to entertain you, you want it to make you feel something you can’t feel in your normal life but for The Rite of Spring, its legacy will keep shocking us.