Recently I was tasked with writing a presentation on 'something I was passionate about', and after I'd worked my way through several anxiety attacks and a near complete loss of confidence, an idea began to form in my head. A few nights before, I'd been bending my husband's ear about the premiere of a now infamous ballet, which made it's debut over a hundred years ago, and more specifically, the astonishing avant garde costumes created for the piece. After a week of research and presenting to myself in the mirror, I found my enthusiasm for my subject had increased. Allow me then to bend YOUR ear about La Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring, first performed by the Ballet Russes in 1913.
Change was afoot in the world of ballet at the dawn of the twentieth century, with a turn away from the formalism and the classicism of ballets such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Mikhail Fokine, a dancer with the Mariinsky, the Imperial ballet company, had become increasingly frustrated with the ballet world's 'blind conformity' to tradition. He felt the overly fussy costumes and emphasis on virtuoso technique, and the often-laboured mime which constituted a big part of traditional choreograhpy, caused the expression and the true meaning of dance to be lost. He believed that choreography should focus on more naturalistic movement. In 1907, Fokine, influenced by the American dancer Isadora Duncan, joined forced with the impresario Serge Diaghilev to create a ballet company that would perform works which were impassioned and instinctive, as opposed to the sterile and unnatural ballets of old. The tired world of ballet could offer no equal, and great writers and artists, such as Chagall, Rodin, Cocteau, and Picasso took an immediate interest in this new artistic force in their midst.
The Bloomsbury Group - the free-thinking and artistic circle of friends which centered around the painter Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf, were particularly taken by the Ballet Russes for a time. In 1925, the eminent economist Maynard Keynes, another Bloomsbury member, married Lydia Lopokova, a dancer from the company (much to the astonishment of his friends, who hadn't thought he was the marrying kind...)
The ballets staged by the company in the pre-war era, such as The Firebird and La Spectre de la Rose, came to be regarded as the golden age of ballet, and a true realisation of just what the art form could be - a complete union of dance, music, drama, and design.
Diaghilev’s star dancer and sometimes lover Vaslav Nijinsky had choreographed a ballet to Debussy’s tone poem L’apres-midi d’un faune, and this was the ballet put forward by the company for the 1912 season. If Fokine and Duncan had begun to explore a loosening of Ballet’s rigid forms, then Nijinsky pushed this to the extreme. He created a highly stylized technique that shocked the company as much as it did the audience. Nijinsky was a true experimentalist, he wanted to do something that had never been done before.
The debut of L’apres-midi d’un faune caused an outrage, not least because of underlying eroticism of the choreography, and the perceived obscenity of the faun’s closing movement, in which he lay down on a nymph’s discarded veil. Parisian society was scandalised.
But this was nothing compared to the reaction which awaited Nijinsky’s next ballet, the infamous Rite of Spring, performed to a challenging avant garde score by Stravinsky.The scenario envisaged by Stravinsky was uncompromisingly harsh, a primitive society ruled by superstition and fear, in which a young girl dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the Gods of Spring.
Again, Nijinsky responded to the score by replacing the illusory lightness and effortless of classical ballet with a sense of heaviness and repetitive passages of walking, stamping, and heavy jumps. Nijinsky wrote to Stravinsky in 1913, remarking that he wanted to create ‘a jolting impression and emotional experience. For some it will open new horizons flooded with different rays of sun. People will see new and different colours and lines. All different, new, and beautiful’.
Nowadays we view avant-garde work in museums and galleries and we’re immune to its shock value, we’re too used to it, we've seen it all before. But watching a performance of the Rite of Spring on youtube a few days ago, I was struck by how powerful it still is – it’s so out there, so it’s quite easy to imagine how shocking and perplexing it would have appeared to audiences in 1913. They thought they come to see a ballet, and to them, this was not what ballet was. It’s stark, and fraught, every aspect of it is challenging, the music, the choreography, the costumes. Even today, people think of ballet as a soft art form, it’s pretty and delicate and romantic, with pointed feet and tulle tutus. But this ballet was angular, it’s all pointed elbows, and pigeon-toed feet.
The costumes, designed by Nicholas Roerich, evoked traditional forms and patterns of Russian folk costume - and yet there is something about them that seems so modern. The cosmopolitan Parisian audience had never seen anything like them - another wall between them and the performance on the stage.
And this brutalism if often mistaken for a sort of coldness, a lack of emotion, but the Rite of Spring has a chilling urgency that runs right the way through it. The chosen one’s sacrificial dance at the end of the ballet is really quite scary, full of panic and desperation and menace. And by reiterating the beat of Stravinsky’s score with the repetitive thump of the dancer’s feet against the stage, the choreography becomes part of the music itself. Its cuts right through you.
There are conflicting accounts of what occurred when the ballet debuted at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in May 1913. Some say it caused a sensation in the audience, others called a riot.The dancers could barely hear the orchestra above the catcalls and whistles. Nijinsky stood in the wings, and called out the complicated beat, desperate to keep the dancers in time. Only Maria Piltz’s performance of the final sacrificial dance brought quiet to the crowd, although as she performed the frantic leaps and spasms, someone did shout out that she should maybe see a doctor.
After such a poor reception, Nijinsky’s vision was performed just nine times by the company, in Paris and London. The historian Lytton Strachey (another member of the Bloomsbury Group), called the ballet, ‘one of the most painful experiences of my life. I couldn't have imagined that boredom and sheer anguish could have been combined together at such a pitch.’
The ballet marked the beginning of the end of the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev, although of course the latter was delighted at the publicity brought about by the scandal. It also marked the end of the golden age of the Ballet Russes.
Watch the ballet for yourself with the wonder of youtube!