Dublin Dance Festival’s opening night shows the rite way to do it

Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography became a victim of the success of the music in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. A century later, choreographers are still trying to get to grips with the dance

A detail of a caricature drawing of the composer Igor Stravinsky playing the music for The Rite of Spring by  Jean Cocteau

A detail of a caricature drawing of the composer Igor Stravinsky playing the music for The Rite of Spring by Jean Cocteau


Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score for Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) became a modernist classic after its raucous opening night a century ago; but Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was consigned to history’s dustbin.

There is every reason to believe that the choreography was also a modernist triumph. Dance at the time was a slave to music, frequently described as “music visualisation” rather than choreography. Working with his assistant Marie Rambert, Nijinsky resisted Stravinsky’s overpowering rhythms and structures and created movement that had aesthetic autonomy and a distinct modernist language. After the first performances, the unnotated choreography disappeared, although dance scholar Millicent Hodson reconstructed Nijinsky’s original for the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s.

But the ballet’s absence throughout the 20th century changed dance history. Not only were choreographers denied an inspirational springboard for their own creations, but the symbolism of Nijinsky’s failure and Stravinsky’s triumph cast a shadow on the art form. Nijinsky, pursued by his aesthetic demons, descended into madness, while Stravinsky became a successful 20th-century cultural icon.

Le Sacre instantly gained a reputation as an undanceable score, shunned by dance makers for its angular rhythms and one-dimensional barbarity. Those brave enough to take it on treated it with reverence. Important productions range from the ballets of Léonid Massine, Kenneth MacMillan and Maurice Béjart to the modern dance productions of Pina Bausch and Martha Graham.

As time passed, interpretations became looser and less reverential. Recently, Irish choreographer David Bolger created a version based on the ritual dances of stag and hen parties, while Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production for Sadler’s Wells in London retained the pagan links to the original, but substituted female empowerment for subordination.

The score’s massive orchestral forces are often matched by a stage full of dancers, so the rhetoric of facing down the score with a solo dancer is powerful. In Tero Saarinen’s Hunt, which opens this year’s Dublin Dance Festival, Saarinen plays the part of both hunter and hunted as his body is metaphorically and literally sacrificed to the constant barrage of information and images found in the digital age.

Back in 2002, the festival featured a choreographer who went even further. Jérôme Bel’s eponymous quartet usurped Le Sacre’s notorious orchestral complexity with a performer nonchalantly singing the complete score from memory.

Le Sacre’s music publisher Boosey & Hawkes claims there have been more than 150 new productions of the ballet in the past century. As choreographers cast off the legacy of Nijinsky’s failure, the next century is sure to have many more productions.

Hunt is part of Tero Saarinen’s Stravinsky Evening at the Abbey Theatre, tonight and tomorrow. dublindancefestival.ie