Recreation of Nijinsky's 1913 Choreography of Le Sacre du Printemps
I’ve been sorting out a drawer full of video tapes to play through those that might be worth transferring to DVD. One contained a recording made some years ago of an ‘Arena’ dramatization of the first performance of The Rite of Spring. The background plot was of Stravinsky persuading Diaghilev to set his music to a ballet, and then the rehearsal and performance of the ballet choreographed by Nijinsky in Paris in 1913. But the performance of the ballet itself and the riot that broke out in the Theatre des Champs Elysee when it was performed, provided an atmospheric culmination. At times such was the noise level that Nijinsky had to beat time from the wings to help the dancers who could barely hear the music.
Although the riotous events in the theatre have entered into myth as a response to Stravinsky’s music, it may well have been Nijinsky’s choreography that upset many present (see recreation above). Even so, Stravinsky’s score must have sounded raucous and dissonant to those who could hear it above the general din. The music has long been familiar to me, and was one of the first pieces or orchestral music I got to know. But watching the dancers move around the stage to the music in their heavy costumes (most recent versions seem to put the dancers in flesh-coloured body stockings) while the audience cat-called, booed, cheered and argued among themselves, set the piece in its contemporary context and underlined the revolutionary nature of the work.
This was the age during which high modernism launched itself onto a bewildered world. In many ways the experimentation in music, literature, and indeed all the arts has not been equalled. Much of the ‘revolutionary’ art that has developed since seems derivative and to lack substance by comparison. Stravinsky, Eliot, Joyce, Picasso and many others remain as icons of ‘the modern’ even today.