Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Rite of Spring

Garageland blogger Laura Olohan takes us back to May 29th 1913 in the Theatre Des Champs-Elysees, where the audience was about to riot. 

The performance was not a popular success. Boos, catcalls and anything available to hand was thrown at the stage. Little did this audience know that The Rite of Spring was to become one of the most influential musical pieces of the 20th century, ushering in a new period of art.

The composer Igor Stravinsky was working with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes and the resulting sound and spectacle was drastically distinct from what the balletic audience of the time was used to hearing (Tchaikovsky’s more genteel Swan LakeThe Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty). The reception to the ballet’s rhythmically complex score and Nijinsky's jarring choreography led to the original run of the show lasting a total of only eight performances.

When I rediscovered the Ballet Russes’ The Rite of Spring (after seeing a short clip of a documentary film in a lecture) I was immediately reminded of an exhibition I saw in 2010  in the V & A museum, ‘Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes, 1909 – 1929’. 

This exhibition demonstrated the influence and impact of the Ballet Russes onto 20th Century art, interior design, choreography, costume and theatre. It was an exclusive exhibition in which you could walk around and see all of Nikolas Roerich's costume and set design, and the photographic documentation of the Ballet Russes company. Other costumes included in the exhibition were designed by major figures such as Coco Chanel and Pablo Picasso.  

The costume designed by Picasso for the Chinese Conjuror 
in the ballet Parade.

The Rite of Spring was playing, accompanying my walk around the exhibition. It made me feel a wave of nostalgia, and I realised I knew exactly what this piece was – I had heard it when I was a small child watching Disney’s Fantasia. I remember the misleading, serene intonations of the bassoon followed abruptly by the harsh, jarring sounds of the string section, accompanying images of huge deep red volcanoes erupting and waves crashing against rock.

The story of the Rite of Spring is based in Pagan Russia, and is split into two parts. Part I: The Adoration of Earth, and Part II: The Sacrifice. At the beginning Russian pagan woodland creatures are playing, fighting and performing rituals; living their magical pagan lives. However, in order for spring to arise, a young virgin, ‘the chosen one’ – known because her dance will stand out amongst the other virgins – must be picked before the sage. ‘The chosen one’ must then sacrifice herself by dancing to death. 

Roerich costume design for female dancers in the Rite of Spring

Kenneth Macmillan’s contemporary version (1962) of the ballet was performed recently in the Royal Opera House in November 2013. Macmillan is the nineteenth choreographer to have attempted to take on the ballet, and one of the very few to have had much success. His version, based on aboriginal Australia rather than pagan Russia, is unabashedly primitive. Large cave painting hand-prints evoke the terrain, whilst vivid sunset coloured costumes give off the feel of extreme temperature and ritualistic mask juxtapose a primitive and contemporary charm. 

Original 'Virgins'

Though the fabric of the ballet remains the same, the movements have been reinterpreted for a new audience and setting. When in the original choreography the ballet dancers sloped down and loudly thumped their hands on the floor to the slow, daunting strings, Macmillan's contemporary version finds dancers scraping their feet across the floor in a quick, slick gesture, as if the tribes of aboriginal Australia were sweeping away the dust of the desert terrain.

Macmillan Version

Back to 1913 Paris. Not only was the piece of music by Stravinsky brutal and savage, but its combination with the original choreography was so avant-garde for its time that it hindered rather than dazzled the majority of ballet audiences. Claude Debussy was sat in the audience of the premier and was, apparently, blocking his ears. 

Diaghilev repeatedly switched the theatre lights on and off to put an end to the storm of a very disruptive, angry audience, which then spilled out onto the streets of Paris. The controversy attracted a lot of attention from the global media, none of it positive.

The experience of watching The Rite of Spring remains to this day to be radical. This is part of the ballet's success, its vision, so controversial at first, has remained contemporary.

I visited Paris in February 2014, and called in on the Theatre Des Champs-Elysees. Over one hundred years ago, the night of May 29th 1913, this building held an incredibly important moment in time; haunting Western art and music to this day. The Rite of Spring continues to stand as one of the most important artworks of the 20th century.

Laura Olohan

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