Ballet's The Rite of Spring, 100 years later

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 5:18pm


When The Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris in 1913, it created the most violent brouhaha in ballet history, with critics condemning Igor Stravinsky's music as barbarous and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography as senseless ugliness.

One hundred years on, the original dance material may be lost, but Rite has become one of the most choreographed scores in existence. It was danced solo by American choreographer Molissa Fenley in 1988, and by 250 Berlin teenagers in a 2003 version by Royston Maldoom. It has been interpreted as a savage biological battle of the sexes by Pina Bausch, and as a luminous 3-D spectacle by Klaus Obermaier.

Stravinsky's score is now, as Michael Keegan-Dolan says, dryly, "a rite of passage in itself".

The Irish choreographer's 2009 version will feature in a season of Rite-inspired dances, entitled "A String of Rites", at Sadler's Wells; as will community dance project Riot Offspring, which will see 80 non-professionals take to the stage; while the Akram Khan Company will perform iTMOi ( In the Mind of Igor).

Keegan-Dolan speaks for many when he says it's not just the music's notoriety that lures choreographers. "There's a whole education in there. If you use your imagination, it takes you back to 1913. You're in the world of Stravinsky, [original designer Nicholas] Roerich and Nijinsky. You're in that room with all the boys when everything was changing so fast. Afterwards, you come out more fully realised as a choreographer."

Those "boys" certainly made history on May 29, 1913. Discarding the romanticism, glamour and faux exoticism that were ballet's traditional selling points, Rite's creators channelled a new world for the dance stage - one in which men and women could be crushed by the forces of nature, and an innocent girl brutally sacrificed to callous gods.

What made this doubly shocking to its audience was the modernity of its language. Stravinsky's score might have been based on the music of folkloric tradition, but it twisted and compressed its sources into searing shapes and sounds. Rhythms splintered and collided, harmonies clashed, instruments played in pulsing, shrieking registers. If this was an evocation of spring, it was no gentle pastoral, but a season of cracking ice, violent wind and burning sun.

If the music was cataclysmic, Nijinsky's choreography turned the logic of classical ballet inside out. Dancers in coarse tunics moved like peasants rather than princes and princesses: their shoulders were tense, their limbs awkwardly angled. They stamped, trembled and convulsed; when they jumped, they seemed hobbled by gravity.

Protesters at the opening night shouted for a doctor, or even a dentist, given the convulsions that seemed to afflict the dancers.

Many of the cast resented the ballet, too, regarding it as a perverse waste of their training. Yet Nijinsky's starkly physical choreography created a seismic shift, paving the way for a new era of modern dance. "The moment he chose to have his dancers turn in their toes, stick out their elbows and pound against the floor, everything changed," Keegan-Dolan says.

For him, one key aspect of Rite was its attempt to create - and connect with - an atavistic past. "These men had the idea of showing a pagan vision of Russia that would shock their over-sophisticated, over-educated Paris audience."

When making his own Rite, Keegan-Dolan set out to connect with his ancestry, while steering clear of Celtic twilight imagery. "So I went up to a cairn at the top of a mountain in Sligo, on a night with a full moon, and I just listened to the music. Then I knew what I wanted to do." The result - with its sullen drunks, pale-faced witchy women, and lurching men who transform into hunting dogs - kicks off the two-month Sadler's season.

iTMOi, the London-born Khan's contribution to "A String of Rites", isn't set to the original score. He prefers to collaborate with live composers - in this case Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. "It was such an extraordinary time Stravinsky was living in - a complete rupturing of the arts. We're still feeling its effects. If you listen to the music for Psycho or Jaws, you can hear Rite."

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