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The Rite and the Riot
February 12, 2018
Dancers rehearsing The Rite of Spring

A critic of the time called it "a laborious and puerile barbarity”, while music historian Richard Taruskin claims it wasn’t Stravinsky’s music that repelled the audience, but rather what was perceived as “the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky”. Whatever the case, at the Ballets Russes' premiere of The Rite of Spring, a loud and boisterous fight broke out in the audience, drowning out the music and forcing the choreographer to shout over the uproar, to help the dancers keep track of their steps.

The performance – and uproar – took place May 29, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, in Paris. The work’s full title: The Rite of Spring - Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts. Igor Stravinsky described his composition as evoking “the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring", with the first part, The Adoration of the Earth, evoking primitive fertility rituals celebrating the arrival of the season, and in the second part, The Sacrifice, a young girl dancing herself to death.

Following the calamitous premiere, there were another five performances in Paris and four more in London, after which the Nijinsky version faded into oblivion (abetted perhaps by choreographer Mikhail Fokine, who returned to work with Les Ballets Russes on the condition that none of Nijinsky’s works would be performed.) Much later, new choreographies of The Rite emerged, by Leonid Massine, Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch and many others. Nijinsky’s choreography, which, over the years, had been lost and forgotten, was eventually painstakingly reconstructed by Millicent Hodson, and revived in 1987 by the Joffrey Ballet.

Stravinsky’s composition, considered revolutionary at the time yet based on Lithuanian folksongs, is today one of the most recorded works of classical music.

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