June 29, 2013

Reflections on the 100th anniversary of The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du printemps) is a ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. When first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation and almost a riot in the audience. Although designed as a work for the stage, with specific passages accompanying characters and action, the music achieved equal if not greater recognition as a concert piece, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century. 
An excerpt from the article, "The Joffrey Ballet Resurrects The Rite of Spring," published on the website of the National Endowment for the Arts:
When Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes premiered The Rite of Spring, or Le Sacre du printemps (Sacre), at Paris's Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913, a riot broke out. The score by Igor Stravinsky was a panoply of shifting syncopations and dissonant harmonies, while the choreography by famed danseur Vaslav Nijinsky curled the dancers' bodies inward as they jerkily stamped and jumped across the stage. Archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich contributed the set design and the costumes, which were described in a 2002 Ballet Magazine article as "heavy smocks, handpainted with [primitive] symbols of circles and squares." The pre-Modernist audience, accustomed to the demure grace of classical ballet, was further outraged by the graphic nature of the ballet's story--the pagan sacrifice of a virgin by her village to usher in spring.

Nijinsky's ballet was performed only seven more times--in Paris and London-- before disappearing from the classical repertoire for reasons including Nijinsky's mental breakdown and the deterioration of his relationship with Diaghilev. Many new iterations of the ballet were choreographed--including versions by Pina Bausch and Martha Graham--but only the score remained intact from the initial performances.
Below are excerpts from historian Modris Eksteins's 1989 book, "Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age." Key Porter Books: Toronto. Pg. 9-12 & 39-40.
"A libretto, in Igor Stravinsky's hand, reads in translation:
      The Rite of Spring is a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring. The piece has no plot . . .
      First Part: The Kiss of the Earth. The spring celebration . . . The pipers pipe and young men tell fortunes. The old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. They dance the spring dance. Games start . . . The people divide into two groups, opposing each other. The holy procession of the wise old men. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games, which come to a stop. The people pause trembling . . . The old men bless the spring earth . . . The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.
     Second Part: The Great Sacrifice. All night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is consecrated as the victim and is twice pointed to by fate, being caught twice in the perpetual dance. The virgins honor her, the chosen one, with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men. She sacrifices herself in the presence of the old men in the great holy dance, the great sacrifice.
Many have claimed to describe it, that opening night performance of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29, 1913, a Thursday, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées: Gabriel Astruc, Romola Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, Misia Sert, Marie Rambert, Bronislava Nijinska, Jean Cocteau, Carl Van Vechten, Valentine Gross. Their accounts conflict on significant details. But one thing they all agree on: the event provoked a seismic response.
Regardless of attire, the audience on that opening night played, as Cocteau noted, "the role that was written for it." And what was that role? To be scandalized, of course, but, equally, to scandalize. The brouhaha surrounding Le Sacre was to be as much in the reactions of members of the audience to their fellows as in the work itself. The dancers on stage must have wondered at times who was performing and who was the audience.

Shortly after the wistful bassoon melody of the opening bars, the protests began, first with whistling. When the curtain went up and the dancers appeared, jumping up and down and toeing, against all convention, inward rather than outward, the howling and hissing started. "Having already made fun of the public once," wrote Henri Quittard in Le Figaro, referring to Jeux, "a repeat of the same joke, in such a heavy-handed way, was not in very good taste." To turn ballet, the most effervescent and fluid of art forms, into grotesque caricature was to insult good taste and the integrity of the audience. That was the attitude of the opposition. It felt offended. It jeered. Applause was the response of the defenders. And so the battle was joined." (Pg. 9 - 12).

"The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me," Stravinsky said later, "while I was still composing The Firebird. I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial victim dances herself to death." Asked on another occasion what he loved most about Russia, he answered: "The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking. That was the most wonderful event of every year of my childhood." And so the theme of Le Sacre was birth and death, Eros and Thanatos, primitive and violent, the fundamental experiences of all existence, beyond cultural context.

Although the emphasis eventually was on the positive aspects of the theme --- spring, its accompanying rites, and life --- the initial title Stravinsky assigned to the score was revealing and hardly affirmative: The Victim. And in the libretto the last tableau involves, of course, the sacrifice of the chosen maiden. The ballet ends with the enactment of a death scene in the midst of life. The usual interpretation of the ballet is that it is a celebration of life through death, and that a maiden is chosen for sacrificial death in order to honor the very qualities of fertility and life that she exemplifies. And yet in the end, because of the importance attached to death in the ballet, to the violence associated with regeneration, to the role of "the victim," Le Sacre may be regarded as a tragedy.   

Whether the eventual title was original or borrowed is uncertain. The notion of regeneration and rebirth was to be found in much avant-garde activity at the turn of the century. The title of the Austrian Secessionists' journal was Ver Sacrum, or Sacred Spring. Frank Wedekind's play about the sexual problems of adolescents was called Fruhlingserwachen, or Spring Awakening. Excerpts from Proust's work were published in Le Figaro in March 1912 with the title "Au Seuil du printemps" ("On the Threshold of Spring"). (Pg. 39-40).   
Reflections on the 100th anniversary of The Rite of Spring. Source: Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press). Date Published: May 24, 2013. Description:
Elizabeth Kendall, author of Balanchine and the Lost Muse, discusses why Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring shocked the world and the composer's relationship with George Balanchine.

Elizabeth Kendall is an Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School. The author of several books, including Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer, she has also written for The New Yorker, Vogue, Ballet News, Dance Magazine, The New York Times, Elle, The New Republic and other journals.