Columbus Symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky and Dancer/Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrouchka, c. 1911(Photo: wikimedia.org)
Igor Stravinsky and Dancer/Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrouchka, c. 1911(Photo: wikimedia.org)

The Columbus Symphony collaborates with BalletMet this week to celebrate the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts, with choreography by James Kudelka. I give pre-concert talks one hour before every performance, Friday through Sunday in the Ohio Theatre.

The one thing most people know about Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps, is that its premiere caused riots. Stravinsky’s score and Nijinsky’s choreography were considered beyond the pale. The wealthy booed and so did the students in the cheap seats, who usually applauded what society hated.

People screamed and kicked and howled so much that the great chandelier of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris nearly pulled a “Phantom of the Opera” crash. What is forgotten is that the evening began with Les Sylphides, the echt decorative ballet, danced by Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina.

The New York Times headline tells the Stravinsky' ballet did not go over well in Paris.
The New York Times headline tells the
Stravinsky’ ballet did not go over well in Paris.
(Photo: Wikipedia)

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. This must have been a motto for Sergei Diaghilev, whose production this was. Vaslav Nijinsky was the greatest premier danseur of his time with rock star status. That he was also known to be Diaghilev’s lover gave the occasion that extra bit of scandale the French so enjoyed. When the public is irate over a work of art, they generally enjoy their own wrath.

Why the outrage? There were catcalls five bars into the score. But it seems the elegant public was offended by the costumes designed by Nicholas Roerich allowing for no glimpse of skin; his for an audience used to the elegant sylphs of the Ballet Russes. Dancers on stage sat in a circle while a maiden was sacrificed. No romance. No love and no emotion. Some of the derision was aimed at Diaghilev himself, who was thought pretentious. He gleefully agreed.

But it was the music that riled the public. Never before had such frank eroticism been heard. The rhythms alone left little to the imagination. This was an ironic counterpoint to the over-dressed dancers.

The Rite of Spring is steeped in pagan ritual. The ballet audience 100 years ago was used to pretty people, nicely if skimpily dressed, to music by Chopin, or Delibes or Tchaikovsky. Nijinsky had already outraged the public with his faux self-abuse when dancing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The Russian star did not dance in Rite of Spring, but there was considered nothing decorative about his choreography.

The music endures. It is both haunting and invigorating. The formal structure lacks any tonal center, but that wasn’t new in 1913. Stravinsky experimented with bi-tonality, two keys at once, in The Firebird. The Rite is about ritual involving non-Christian deities with a use of rhythm leaving little to the imagination. Just try to find The Rite of Spring boring. Just try.

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