Hidden Europe: The other side of Paris

First rites on the Right Bank

Those looking to depart from convention in Paris usually head for the Left Bank. No one goes to Avenue des Champs-Elysées, on the Right Bank, looking for revolution. But, cast back 100 years ago this week, and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was the venue for some radical departures from choreographic convention.

The theatre is actually some way from the grand thoroughfare that shares its name. It stands near the foot of Avenue Montaigne, which cuts south-west from Champs-Elysées towards the river. The Avenue Montaigne is not regular Hidden Europe terrain – so much so that I felt decidedly out of place as I walked there recently. This is Louis Vuitton territory, a place for the chic set that knows its Dior from its Bulgari.

The theatre opened in spring 1913. It is an extraordinary building, one that presciently anticipates what later came to be known as Art Deco – although it was not until a dozen years later that the Swiss architect Le Corbusier gave a name to the architectural genre. For many Parisians, the assertive symmetry and reinforced concrete of the exterior were an affront. But, however disquieted they might have been by the building's outside, the citizens of the French capital were even more incensed by what went on inside.

By 1913, Parisians had grown to love the saison russe. Each spring since 1909, the Ballets Russes had performed in the capital, stealing the hearts of its citizens. Critics applauded the primitive energy of Diaghilev's dancers. Here was a touch of the east on the Paris stage. Suddenly, there were Ballets Russes perfumes which added a new dimension to Paris scentscapes. Scheherazade-style pantaloons and even Cossack sabres became part of Parisian haute couture.

The 1913 season of the Ballets Russes was staged at the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Nijinsky's Faune had raised a few eyebrows when it was premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 29 May 1912. A year later to the day, Le Sacre du Printemps had its first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

Every aspect of The Rite of Spring was immensely provocative. Stravinsky's music, Roerich's costumes and set, but, above all, the on-stage antics of the lead dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky incensed the audience. Russia had breached the bounds of Parisian convention, and a riot erupted within the theatre.

As we approach the centenary of the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, it is good to remember that, even around the sedate boulevards of the 8th arrondissement, there is scope for revolution. The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is still going strong and will mark the centenary on 29 May with a performance of Le Sacre du Printemps that recalls Nijinsky's 1913 choreography in combination with a new staging by the choreographer Sasha Waltz.

More information: theatrechampselysees.fr

Hidden Europe is a print and online collection of writing that reflects the Continent's diverse cultures and landscapes. You can subscribe through hiddeneurope.co.uk

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