Oh boy, Rite of spring…. This is a good one *rubs hands together in excitement*
A real feast of dance history to get your teeth stuck into *flexes fingers, cracks knuckles* here we go.
So Rite of Spring, first choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to music by Igor Stravinsky. The piece was debuted in Paris in 1913 and created for the touring company Ballet Russes, under the artistic direction of Sergei Diaghilev.
[I know I know, but stay with me, there a quite a few Russian names to wade through here but it’s all worth it, honest]
Picture the scene; you are a member of high society in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps you had brought along a date, wanting to impress her with your sophisticated choice for a third date, Ballet Russes is a well-respected and well known company with artists such as Matisse, Stravinsky and Fokine on its books it is sure to be a charming evening, right? Or maybe you were a seasoned fan, having already seen previous tours, you were delighted by the bite-sized ballets beautiful sets and stunning choreography. Whatever your motivation, this was not what you were expecting.
The orchestra began, the curtain rose, the female dancers entered…
…then came the riot.
A riot at the Rite, or so the story goes. It is, hard to say the full scale of the disturbance as it has become more violent as time has progressed. We have some rather thrilling eye witness account of members of the audience being challenged to a duel [hard to believe anyone uttered such an invitation in earnest], with blows exchanged and possessions thrown at the stage in protest. Was it the atonal score or the turned in positioning of the dancers? Probably a combination of the two, but whatever audiences saw in those opening moments they rebelled, both mentally and physically.
Putting the piece into context, playing with the format of a ballet had just never been done before. Dancers were pretty, dainty and above all turned out. The stories may be of beautiful tragedies, but the horror and fear that were at the very heart of Rite of Spring had not been portrayed in such a primitive fashion before. The story tells of an ancient Slavic rite where a young maiden must be sacrificed at the end of winter to ensure the spring would come. The young woman is chosen by a game of fate, following the appropriate rites and rituals the maiden is then forced to dance herself to death. Dance herself to death; let’s just think about that for a moment. The brutality, the passion, dedication and belief in something bigger than yourself the sheer force of will to continue dancing until you simply could no longer exist. Nijinsky wanted to capture that, bottle it, and feed it to his audiences.
His research in preparation for the piece saw him studying ancient Slavic totems. He was struck by their shape, by the inverted nature of the figures, translating this idea to his dance he created a choreography what required his dancers to be turned in. Knock-kneed, hunched over and flat footed, this was Nijinsky’s beautiful but brutal ballet.
Diaghilev allowed no cameras to record his companies’ work. Consequently all we have from this performance is; three backstage photographs, scribbled notes on music scores, stick drawings and the movement memory of the principal dancers. Consequently it is safe to say Nijinsky’s original piece has been lost to legend. We have a wonderful recreation by Millicent Hodson and performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987; but she will be the first to point out, it is impossible to claim this as Nijinsky’s work.
So we have one myth, one legend and one phenomenal reconstruction. So what comes next?
Inspired by the story of this ancient Slavic rite, the passion of the sacrificial dancer or out of loyalty and admiration to Nijinsky we have been honoured with many interpretations and adaptations of the ballet.
Martha Graham’s came in the ‘80s and is still a part of her companies’ repertoire. Kenneth Macmillan was the nineteenth choreographer to adapt the rite and his was premiered in 1962, he chose to abandon the ritual for dramatic flair. Other reconstructions include Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, where the frenzy and fear are brought to the forefront, and the music makes an appearance in Disney’s Fantasia [it’s the bit with the dinosaurs].
And then we come to the present, and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. They are currently touring the UK with an original interpretation of The Rite of Spring, in a double bill with Petroushka. Expect animal heads and sacrifice, atonal music and grounded footwork. This is The Rite of Spring it is dark, it is savage, it is dance history. We kindly ask that you please don’t riot