BBC drama about Stravinsky's riot of spring

In 1913, the Paris premiere of Stravinsky's ballet 'The Rite of Spring' caused a riot. Sarah Shannon reports from the set of the BBC's new drama about the scandal
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A beautiful woman rests her cheek against a marble wall. Dressed in a turquoise gown and silk gloves, only her face can drink in the marble's chill. Next to her, a sweaty man in a natty suit tenderly hugs a cool marble pillar.

This strange scene is happening in the bowels of a building in Bloomsbury, where the BBC is filming an ambitious period drama, Riot at the Rite. A hundred extras have been corsetted and costumed to look like belle époque Parisiens. The basement itself has been transformed into a theatre lobby, with a handsome art deco statue at its centre. Down in this subterranean Paris, the room pulses with heat. Some elderly extras sit in deckchairs while make-up girls fan them. The same girls hurry onto the set between takes and pull out brushes to powder shining brows and noses.

The director, Andy Wilson, tells his gasping cast that the heat only makes this scene more authentic. In May 1913, the lobby of the Théâtre Champs-Elysées in Paris was also over-poweringly hot. Yet the city's most glittering figures - Picasso, Cocteau, Proust, Ravel and Debussy - still went to the theatre that night.

They wanted to witness the premiere of The Rite of Spring, written by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The music assaulted their ears. Stravinsky had experimented with ferocious stamping rhythms and set them against each other so that they clashed unpredictably. The choreography shocked the first-night audience with its daring modernism, ripping up the rulebook of classical ballet with its heavy, savage movements. One of the dancers later commented, "With every leap we landed heavily enough to jar every organ in us." Most shocking of all was the subject matter of pagan rituals and the barbaric sacrifice of a young virgin.

The performance split the crowd. Some loved the break from tradition; others were disgusted by this modernist vulgarity. The nay-sayers began to boo. The cat-calling grew until the dancers struggled to hear the music. Scuffles broke out and the theatre's owner flashed the lights on and off to calm the crowd, but to no avail. A near-riot took place in the theatre while the ballet dancers and musicians kept performing.

Riot at the Rite aims to recreate the story of that historic premiere through the eyes of its main protagonists; the choreographer Nijinsky (played by Adam Garcia), the impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes Sergei Diaghilev (Alex Jennings), Nijinsky's assistant Marie Rambert (Rachael Stirling) and Stravinsky himself (Aidan McArdle). Woven into all this are two love stories: first between Nijinsky and his mentor Diaghilev, and second between Nijinsky and his female admirer Romola.

Nijinsky choreographed rather than danced The Rite of Spring, but Garcia's body still felt the rigours of the discipline. Garciahas danced throughout his career, but admits it would take him 15 years of further training to reach a professional standard. "There's a jumping session at the end of one dance which involves 120 jumps in six minutes. Luckily I only had to do three minutes of it and even then I got split soles."

Griff Rhys Jones plays Gabriel Astruc, the theatre owner ruined by the scandal of The Rite of Spring. As the man who helped rebuild the Hackney Empire, Rhys Jones knows a thing or two about the theatre business. He believes Astruc's hard-nosed commercial sense was compromised by his admiration for Diaghilev. "He's a moth to the flame," says Rhys Jones. "He starts to become aware that Paris isn't up to this. Then he goes on to realise the scandal is going to cost him his shirt."

This production is a collaboration between the BBC drama and classical music departments, and follows another successful BBC venture, Eroica, starring Ian Hart as Beethoven. Undoubtedly it will provide a visual feast, but can modern viewers empathise with a scandal at the ballet? After all, nothing in the arts shocks us anymore. Still, when did you last see an audience so passionately divided that they started to fight each other?

"You're more likely to shock the arts world now by putting on something that's too conventional," says Rhys Jones. He recalls walking out of a Derek Jarman film as a student, but he was more outraged at having his own time wasted by "pretentious codswallop" than by the subject matter.

Garcia likens the scandal of The Rite of Spring to the Sex Pistols swearing on Bill Grundy's chat show. "Or it's like someone going to a concert expecting classical music and then The Beatles coming on stage for the first time. The balletophiles thought that it would kill ballet as they knew it."

Did Nijinsky wither under this critique? "As far as I can conceive, he didn't care," Garcia says. "He wanted people to get his ideas, to change the world and make it beautiful. Sadly, he was more famous for being the most beautiful dancer and jumping really high."

The drama doesn't just focus on the main protagonists. Over half an hour will be devoted to the dance itself. The Finnish National Ballet flew to London for the film. Zenaida Yanowsky, a principal with the Royal Ballet, performed the solo in "The Dance of the Chosen One". Hardened cast and crew were taken aback by her astonishing talent.

Producer David Snodin explains that four cameras were fixed on Yanowsky and the stage was miked up so that her every breath could be heard. "She sounded like Serena Williams on Centre Court. You don't see the sheer exertion of ballet when they're on stage, but the cameras take you right there next to her. You can see the sweat flying off her.

"When she finished the dance you could have heard a pin drop. There was this long pause before Andy shouted cut. Then everyone went wild, roaring bravos." Garcia adds, "I finally got what it was all about, what a genius Nijinsky was. People would be hard pushed to choreograph a dance like that now with all the years of contemporary dance to guide them."

While the Finns filmed their dance, the crew cat-called, booed and whistled to give the dancers some idea of what their predecessors faced. "You could see on their faces a combination of fear and a determination to keep going. It was magical," says Snodin.

Back in the heat of the Bloomsbury set, Wilson makes some last-minute adjustments. "Gents, get those cigars going and turn your mobiles off," he booms. "Check for modern glasses and watches. Oh, and let's have some shrieks of laughter. I want you all to have fun." And, despite being crammed into a hot room, dazzled by lights and choked with cigar smoke, the fun begins.

'Riot at the Rite', 9pm on 11 March on BBC2