A dance to the death

An Irishwoman’s Diary: One hundred years since ‘The Rite of Spring’ was first performed

On the opening night of 
The Rite of Spring
, Stravinsky (above) seethed in the front row before walking out. Backstage, a crazed Nijinsky stood on a chair, shrieking instructions to the dancers. He had to be restrained from dashing on stage.
Photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection

On the opening night of The Rite of Spring , Stravinsky (above) seethed in the front row before walking out. Backstage, a crazed Nijinsky stood on a chair, shrieking instructions to the dancers. He had to be restrained from dashing on stage. Photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection

Tue, May 28, 2013, 00:00

The image of a young girl dancing herself to death in a bid to cajole nature might not appeal to everyone, yet as the relentless winter rampages its way through the months, more and more of us may feel that frenzied dancing is not that bad an idea.

Early in 1910, the young Igor Stravinsky was drawn to a ballet inspired by prehistoric rites celebrating the arrival of spring. He was at that time completing the orchestration of The Firebird, the first work he had written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. That new work would began with an image: Stravinsky imagined a circle of elders sitting in a circle, watching the girl. It was just that, no more. Yet he mentioned his vision to a friend, a fellow Russian, the painter Nicholas Roerich, who was also a set designer and had an interest in ancient Slavic rites. Diaghilev, opportunist and ever a shaper of genius, was enthusiastic – and when the time came, he knew he had a choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, the dynamic, possibly possessed dancer who had created the role of the puppet Petrushka in Stravinsky’s ballet.

While Stravinsky had no difficulty with Nijinsky as a dancer, he had little faith in him as a choreographer. L e Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), the centenary of which occurs tomorrow, had been intended for the Ballets Russes’s 1912 Paris season. Diaghilev. however, calmly announced that there would be a delay: Nijinsky was ill. The impresario was stalling for time. Nijinsky was encountering many problems. Not only was he daunted by the rhythmic complexity of the score, the dancers, initially wary of the project, had become openly hostile to it – and him. They were rejecting Nijinsky’s radical concepts which were not only defying the traditional steps and positions of classical ballet in which they had been trained; he was asking them to adopt ungainly movements such as turning their toes inwards and expecting them to land flat and often painfully.

Nijinsky was by then rumoured to be Diaghilev’s lover and already unstable. Diaghilev pacified Stravinsky by inviting him on the ballet’s then forthcoming European tour. More importantly, he promised the composer that the orchestra numbers would be increased. This appeased Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring is a huge work, the extended woodwind matched by a reinforced brass including eight horns, a piccolo trumpet, four standard ones, three trombones, two tenor and two brass tubas, all served by an army of strings. The incredibly diverse and innovative Stravinsky dominates 20th-century classical music in the same way as Picasso towers above his peers, and The Rite of Spring remains one of the most exciting experiences for any audience, as well as a challenge for orchestras and dancers.

As for opening night at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29th, 1913, well, it could have gone better. The audience was populated, as are most gala events, by the rich and famous, particularly the conservative wealthy patrons who had come expecting to enjoy a prettily staged, traditional ballet. Instead they were presented with a savage spectacle, being performed with a life-and- death urgency. Stravinsky would later claim that the only person present who understood the music was fellow composer Maurice Ravel. This was unfair as Claude Debussy also supported Stravinsky, after all, Debussy’s composition L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, had also been choreographed by Nijinsky and controversially performed by the Russian the previous year and whose sexualised closing gesture offended sensibilities.

Ironically, the majestically sinuous bars for high bassoon which create such a dramatic opening suggestive of the menace to follow, angered the audience. Cat calls and whistles gathered momentum. Meanwhile, artists and students invited by Diaghilev to bait the expectedly staid audience added their noise. Fights broke out; Ravel and Debussy attempted to mediate, begging for good manners to prevail. Stravinsky seethed in the front row before walking out. Backstage, a crazed Nijinsky stood on a chair, shrieking instructions to the dancers. He had to be restrained from dashing on stage.

A night to remember by all accounts; whatever chance Stravinsky’s revolutionary score had in attracting a public not yet ready for it, the choreography with its tortured movements was bound to alienate. It was soon discarded. Yet it was obvious that despite Stravinsky’s misgivings, Nijinsky did grasp his meaning. The dancer knew that the composer sought the primitive and the elemental, what he referred to as “a series of rhythmic mass movements”.

Initially regarded as “brutal, savage, aggressive and chaotic”, Stravinsky’s stupendous score won out. The riotous shock-waves settled. In 1920 Diaghilev re-staged The Rite of Spring in Paris, choreographed by another Russian, Leonide Massine. By then Nijinsky had already retreated into the silence of his incapacitating schizophrenia.