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

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