Centenary: Landmark ballet

The Rite of Spring: Shock of the new

Its first night caused a scandal – but what really happened on 29 May 1913? Jenny Gilbert charts a painful birth

When people book tickets for a premiere they generally have some idea what they're buying into. And the Parisians who arrived at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913 to see the latest programme by the Ballets Russes certainly weren't expecting conventional or safe. The year before, the company had sparked controversy with The Afternoon of a Faun. In the closing moments, its star Vaslav Nijinsky, an unnervingly sensual man-goat, had mimed a lewd act lying face-down on a scarf. Rite of Spring: Pictures of Pagan Russia also promised choreography by Nijinsky. Whether the audience came to Rite in a spirit of curiosity, of prurience, or adventure, we may never know.

Yet the fabled riot that broke out at its first performance 100 years ago has become a byword for all battles waged by the avant-garde against bourgeois taste. Contemporary accounts are contradictory, but all agree the trouble started (suspiciously, some would say) as soon as the curtain went up.

"Call a dentist!" someone shouted as a line of Young Maidens appeared in squaw-like costumes, their heads tilted sideways on their hands. Others demanded that the cat-callers shut up. It is said that fights broke out. By the interval the police had arrived and left, twice, and still the show went on. Somewhere in the retelling, though, exactly what was being reacted to has blurred. Was it Igor Stravinsky's music, or the performance of it? Was it Nijinsky's bizarre choreography, or the theme of human sacrifice? And was the bit of bother in the stalls spontaneous, or did the wily impresario Serge Diaghilev see the chance to spin a threatened flop into something much more newsworthy?

The impresario's story

Diaghilev was neither a musician nor a creator of ballets – he was originally an exhibition promoter who founded the Ballets Russes after discovering how the Parisian public lapped up all things Russian. The new company included the very best young Russian dancers, among them the 20-year-old Vaslav Nijinsky, who deserted the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg to join and, thanks to Diaghilev's nose for PR, was soon being hailed the greatest dancer in the world. A hard taskmaster, Diaghilev was also a great encourager of talent, offering the 28-year-old Igor Stravinsky his first big break with The Firebird, in 1910, and Petrushka the following year. No purist, he always had an eye for the main chance, careless of sensibilities trampled in the process. The widow of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov protested in open letters to a magazine about the treatment of Schéhérazade, which the Ballets Russes transformed into an orgy in a harem – and a box-office sensation. The one thing Diaghilev failed to manipulate to his advantage was his personal life – notably with Nijinsky, who became his lover, but who, by the time of the making of Rite, was already trying to wriggle free.

So it was that Diaghilev, the arch instigator, found himself out of the loop in early 1913. For once, not even the initial idea was his – Rite was cooked up between Stravinsky and Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter and expert on ancient ritual, who would design the sets and costumes. The pair quickly arrived at a working title: "The Great Sacrifice". The first half would consist of primitive dances interrupted by a procession of elders, culminating in a frenzied dance as the community embraced the coming of spring. Part Two would involve the selection of a maiden for sacrifice and her eventual dance to the death.

The choreographer's story

Vaslav Nijinsky was only 23 in 1913, and though unrivalled as a dancer, had little experience as a choreographer. Faun had been a success, but it was short and static, and Nijinsky had danced the solo role himself, thus avoiding the need to communicate with anyone else, which he didn't do well. The score for Rite, by contrast, was massive, and complex in the extreme. The year before, the company had struggled with a time signature of 5/4 in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë, nailing it only by repeatedly singing the syllables "Ser-Gei-Dia-Ghi-Lev" as they rehearsed the steps. Now Stravinsky was asking them to negotiate music that changed time in every bar: from five beats in a bar to four, to two, to four, to five, at a frantic lick and syncopated as well. Early rehearsals were so chaotic that an assistant, one Marie Rambert, trained in the Eurythmics system, was brought in to help. She was still a hidden presence at the first performance, shouting the counts to the dancers from the wings over the combined din of the music and the unruly audience, while Nijinsky shouted different counts (probably wrong) from the opposite wings. Result: mayhem.

If the music was tricky for the dancers, so were Nijinsky's steps. He, too, wanted to break rules. So galumphing and noisy were the flat-footed jumps and stamps that Stravinsky pencilled their rhythms over his score. Pigeon toes and hunched shuffling replaced the usual travelling steps of ballet, and the dancers spent much of the time with their backs to the audience. As Nijinsky told a journalist in February 1913, Rite "is the life of the stones and the trees. There are no human beings in it. It is a thing of concrete masses, not individual effects."

Deprived of a chance to shine, many of the dancers loathed the choreography, and Nijinsky took it badly, sustained only by the belief that he was creating something original.

The composer's story

Throughout his life. Igor Stravinsky would deny that The Rite of Spring contained Russian folk melodies, but as the score has been analysed and re-analysed over the past century, so it has emerged that it does. Even that strange, strangulated bassoon solo, the opening bit that everyone knows, turns out to be a Lithuanian wedding song, and at least a dozen other sources have been identified. Nonetheless, Stravinsky was being truthful when he said that "very little immediate tradition lies behind The Rite of Spring – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed."

It is, as every conductor or orchestral musician will attest, a towering monolith of a score. It's no exaggeration to say that it impacted on Western music like a bomb blast. For not only does it contain rhythmic complexities previously unknown in the western canon, but it demands that every player in the orchestra be a virtuoso. No bassoonist had ever been challenged to play so high, no trombonist so fast.

Even the piano versions Stravinsky prepared (one piano, two pianos, and four hands at one piano) are fiendish. When Stravinsky first played it through for Pierre Monteux, the conductor in charge of the orchestra, the poor man had to leave the room to gather his wits.

Seventeen orchestral rehearsals were necessary, double the usual number for a new ballet, and Monteux had to beg the musicians to stop interrupting when they thought they'd found mistakes in the score. To their ears, its "atrocious dissonances and strange sounds" were all a mistake. "It seems," wrote a hostile reviewer, "that in the quest for a primitive, prehistoric effect, the composer has worked at bringing his music close to noise."

The ongoing story

The original Rite of Spring ran for only eight more shows, three of them in London. Nijinsky's sudden marriage to Romola, a dancer in the company, finally drew a line under the toxic affair with Diaghilev, who summarily sacked him, forbidding any further performances of his choreography. Thus the steps for Rite were forgotten, while its music went on to become a concert-hall staple.

But adventuresome choreographers have not been able to let it lie, and have between them turned out another 160 versions, and counting, in styles and formats that span the gamut of Western dance. Pina Bausch's 1975 staging, featured in Wim Wenders' film Pina, plays out on a stage thickly covered with red earth, which ends up smeared over the panting, sweating dancers. Kenneth MacMillan's teeming 1962 version for the Royal Ballet, now syndicated around the world, evokes the mystical songlines of Australia's aboriginals.

This week, a more recent interpretation takes the stage at Sadler's Wells as the first in A String of Rites, three commissions to mark the 100th anniversary. Michael Keegan-Dolan's version for his company Fabulous Beast is laced with tropes of Irishness – hare-coursing, tea-drinking, smoking. But Dolan believes the work's original themes resonate through it all the same.

"Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Roerich were reacting to the things I react to now. Those boys were initiating change, and a lot of us are frightened of change. That fear is in The Rite of Spring: fear of the changing seasons, fear of death of the self. These themes are always relevant.

"Dying is something we're all going to do, for sure."

'Rite of Spring' forms a double bill with Dolan's new 'Petrushka' at Sadler's Wells, London (0844 412 4300) Thu to Sat

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower