The ballet detectives reveal how Nijinsky transformed art of dance

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It was to be remembered as one of the moments which ushered in the birth of Modernism in the arts, but at the time, most people called it a riot. The occasion was the first performance of the ballet The Rite of Spring, written by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, in Paris on 29 May 1913.

What happened has become a part of the history of classical music: the intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario of scenes from pagan Russia caused great shock to an audience more accustomed to the demure conventions of classical ballet. The abstract nature of its complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites performed by Les Ballets Russes first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd.

Shouts and fistfights in the audience degenerated into a full-scale riot. At the intermission, the police only managed to restore a limited amount of order, and chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.

While Stravinsky and Nijinsky were said to have been mortified, Sergei Diaghilev, the director of Les Ballets Russes, a man for whom there was clearly no such thing as bad publicity, declared that the events were "just what I wanted".

But the huge controversy it generated had the reverse effect and only a handful of performances took place - four more in Paris and three in London, at the Royal Opera House in Drury Lane, where the London critics applauded it.

Although the work survived as a great orchestral piece and became a staple of the classical canon, it was thought that the original choreography had been lost, locked inside the head of Nijinsky, who became mentally ill in the 1920s, although he lived for much longer and died in England in 1950.

Now, for the first time in 90 years, audiences in London will be able to see for themselves what outraged Parisian society on that May night.

On Monday and Tuesday next week the great Russian company, the Kirov ballet, will be performing the original version of the ballet at the Royal Opera House. The ballet was restored by two experts, Millicent Hodson, an American-born choreographer and Kenneth Archer, a British art historian. The pair are married. Their joint obsession with the legendary ballet brought them together more than 20 years ago and its restoration has been the principal work of their lives.

Ms Hodson said yesterday: "The ballet is really the forerunner of modern dance as we know it. It was so different to what had gone before: it was angular, abstract and geometric and so special. The costumes had these ritualistic designs which people had never seen before. It created a whole new agenda for dance."

She likened their work to the rediscovery of Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, considered to be one the founding works of modern art, which sat in his studio for 20 years before being unveiled to the public. "For the world not to see this work is the equivalent to not being able to see Picasso's masterpiece," she said. Although The Rite of Spring as a piece of Stravinsky music is well known, the ballet itself is not: it portrays an ancient Slavic ritual in which a young maiden dances herself to death to ensure the return of spring. It climaxes with a sacrificial dance of the chosen one.

Since 1913 there have been many versions staged around the world - not to mention Walt Disney's dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. But all have been only interpretations of the original, which was never written down or recorded.

A secondary reason why the ballet was never re-staged was the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, who had been lovers but fell out when Nijinskymarried. In 1920, Diaghilev attempted another version, funded by Coco Chanel and choreographed by Leonide Massine, but it bore little relation to the original.

According to one critic, all that most other versions share in common with the version by Ms Hodson and Mr Archer is Stravinsky's score and the final sacrificial dance.

The couple met in 1981 when Ms Hodson, who had already been studying the ballet for 10 years, was advised to seek out Mr Archer as a researcher on the work of Nicholas Roerich, who designed the modernistic sets and costumes.

Together, they set about a complete restoration of the ballet, through interviews with those who worked on the original production. They also studied contemporary photographs and accounts, Roerich's drawings and those of Valentina Gross, an art student and Nijinsky "groupie" who drew sketches of every performance. Ms Hodson also interviewed Dame Marie Rambert, the founder of the Ballet Rambert in 1979 and again in 1989, shortly before her death. She was an assistant to Nijinsky at the time of the performance, when she was barely 20..

Their restoration was originally performed by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles in 1987 and has since been re-staged all over the world, except London. Each performance has slightly altered the nature of the piece. On the morning after its opening night in the US, Ms Hodson received a telephone call. She said: "It was from Nijinsky's niece, whose mother has been the original lead ballerina, until she fell pregnant and who had already helped us with details from her mother's letters and so forth.

"She told me that after seeing the ballet she remembered another letter, which spoke about the sacrificial victim being 'pushed' rather than volunteering, which put a whole different perspective on it.

"Although the substance of the work has not changed, each times the dances are a little bit different. At the end of the first act there are 44 separate solos, which allows room for individual interpretation. The more you do it, the more you learn.''

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