The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

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The Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Composed by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, costume, props and scenery designed by Nicholas Roerich, commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev and danced by the Ballet Russes, The Rite of Spring caused shockwaves which would go on to affect all aspects of the arts for many years to come. In the 1910’s, and pre-World War One, art and artists mindsets were shifting, modernism was making itself apparent across the globe in fine art and literature. As is commonly known the premiere performance of this ballet was one of extreme controversy, receiving immensely negative reactions from individuals and the media alike. Riots are reported to have taken place in the theatre almost as soon as the curtain came up on the performance. The upper-class audiences of Paris were used to Classical Ballet and, as explained by Parnerkar, in 1913 this meant elegance of swans in Swan Lake, and the grace of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. The Rite of Spring certainly did not provide this. With music described as “wailing and unbearable”, design as “outlandish” and movement, by Taruskin for The New York Times as “ugly earthbound lurching and stomping” we begin to understand why the audience took such offence; it was unlike anything they’d seen or heard before.

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Described later by Stravinsky as “architectonic”, rather than narrative, the ballet followed a celebration of pagan rituals that lead ultimately to the sacrifice of a young woman, through dance, to the gods of spring. Primitivism is central to the ideas explored in The Rite of Spring; the use of primitivist models was a method of critiquing contemporary culture also being used by other progressive artists during this time (Hodson, 1986-1987). The Rite of Spring was influenced by primitive Slavic paintings, mythological poetry and ancient sacrificial rituals. Before its premiere, and indeed most of its actual creation, The Rite of Spring was proposed by Roerich in 1910 to be “a new ballet [that] will give a series of images of holy night among the ancient Slavs…The action will begin with a summer night and finished immediately before the sunrise, when the first rays begin to show (culturedarm, n.d.)”.

The process of collaboration was absolutely paramount in the creation of the Rite of Spring with all elements of the production working together and influencing each other. No elements of the ballet pre-existed, they were created alongside one another in a four-year process leading up to the ballets premiere.

The score was created for the ballet by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The ideas and influence for The Rite of Spring’s accompaniment came from Stravinsky’s interest in pagan Russia and study of folk tunes. Indeed, many of the melodies heard in the score are directly taken from existing Lithuanian folk music. The ground-breaking composition is widely agreed to have contributed to the riots that broke out in the theatre during the premiere, although some do question this saying the music could barely have been heard over the cacophony of shouting/audience objection. The score also went on to have great success in its own right after the disaster of its first performance as part of the ballet, further suggesting it wasn’t music that caused the most protest. Described by !!! as “angular, mostly dissonant and extremely rhythmically complex”, Stravinsky’s composition, as said by Parnerkar, “brought about a revolutionary set of changes in the classical music” and was responsible for the arrival of modernism in classical music.

Nicholas Roerich was in charge of all aspects of design for the original production; costume, backdrop, set etc and his creations were rich in ethnographic details. He drew from his archaeological work, what he knew of medieval Russian ornament and from Russian Princess Maria Tenisheva’s collections of traditional peasant dress. As aforementioned all elements of the original production contributed to the audience’s distress and Roerich’s costumes were certainly a shocking change from the Classical and Romantic style tutus of ballet. The costumes were big and bulky; consisting of brightly coloured woollen shifts, white flannel, loose socks, wigs and hats they emphasised the awkward movements and ugly positions of the dancers and stylized make up further removed elegance and classical beauty from the picture.

It has been disputed between scholars whether the original idea for the ballet actually came from Stravinsky or Roerich. Roerich was certainly already invested in the study of pagan rituals, Slavic paintings and mythological ideas, he was also not only a painter and designer but also an anthropologist. Whilst Stravinsky claimed that he conceived the idea for The Rite of Spring in 1910 as he was finishing his score for the ‘Firebird’, another composition for the Ballet Russes, an interview with Roerich subsequently showed other documentation in which he had written a scenario for a ballet about archaic Russia entitled ‘The Great Sacrifice’ before Stravinsky had approached him. As explained by Hodson, this scenario already created by Roerich survived as the second act of the original Rite of Spring, making it altogether unclear whose individual idea the ballet was. What this does suggest however is that we can safely assume some critical ideas came from both parties, which in-turn reinforces this central notion of collaboration behind the original production.

The Rite of Spring was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer in the Ballet Russes and lover of Sergei Diaghilev the founder/director of the company. Nijinsky was also Russian born and primarily a ballet dancer he had only begun choreographing in 1910. Nijinksky’s previous choreographic endeavour for the Ballet Russes ‘L’Apres Midi de la Faune’ premiered in 1912 and had also shocked its audiences in its premiere performance; it was described by French periodical Le Figero as having “vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness”. Nijinsky worked closely with Roerich when creating the choreography for The Rite of Spring and drew on Roerich’s design sources as direct movement inspiration. The contorted figures with knees turned in and arms twisted back seen in the paintings collected by Roerich where closely studied by Nijinsky and responded to by the reversing of the classical positions seen in ballet. Where the dancers were previously turned out, they were now turned in. Looking again at Figure 1 we can see clearly where multiple ‘rules’ of ballet have been broken. Three out of four of the men pictured have their elbows drawn close to their bodies and a differing three have their arms held at sharp right angles. These positions do not echo the soft framing of the torso or head used in classical ballet with gently curving and open arm positions. As mentioned, before we can also see in this picture that the legs of all four dancers are either held in a parallel alignment or turned in.

The Ballet Russes as a company were existing primarily outside of Russia and as, predominately, a touring company. With their 1913 season opening in Paris before travelling to London, they were in fact an early example of a global dance company. 

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