Editor’s Note: The following contribution is a guest post by UR undergraduate James Fong, who is a Student Assistant working at Parsons Music Library. Thanks, James, for the insights on the in-famous work of Igor Stravinksy!
Ever see a ballet that made you want to riot? If that sounds strange, that’s because it is. The brainchild of composer Igor Stravinsky and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, The Rite of Spring caused its audience members to do just that.
Prior to May 29, 1913, ballet was a rather docile thing. From its first beginnings in Renaissance Italy as a courtly activity for the aristocracy, to its transformation as a formalized discipline involving grace and technique by the late 19th century, ballet was fairly content with itself.
There would be an added creative wrinkle here or there (poses, costumes, etc.), but its fashionability in the day gave it no reason to revolutionize itself.
Then May 29, 1913 happened.
“The theater resembled a prison yard: shouting, howling whistling, slapping, punching.”
“A beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort arose, and cards were exchanged between the men. A duel followed next day.”
“Exactly what I wanted.” – Diaghilev
That is only a microcosm of the reception of a ballet centered around the creative forces of Spring. That and a sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death to appease the god of that very season.
Set in pagan Russia, The Rite was, for all intents and purposes, an uncontrolled experiment in music and dance. Musically, Stravinsky pushed the limits of meter, tonality, and dissonance, which must have caused quite some discomfort for an audience raised on formal music from the glory days of the Common Practice Period. Meanwhile, Nijinsky’s choreography blew the doors off of anything that had preceded it. Angular, violent, and downright convulsive, it was as much a powder keg as the score. So much so that Nijinsky’s choreography was scrapped from 1920 until its resurrection by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles in 1987.
Despite its beginnings in obscurity (at best), or disaster (at worst), The Rite – particularly the score – has since emerged as an enormous commercial and artistic success, lending credibility to the Russian ballet scene, even being featured in Walt Disney’s color trick film, Fantasia. That being said…
Read up on the mayhem, witness the performances, and explore Stravinsky’s other (equally chaotic) works at Parsons Music Library, located on the second floor of Booker Hall. We hope you’ll be better behaved than the original audience.