I have a slight obsession with Le sacre du printemps. I love the Stravinsky score. I love the expansive choreography it has inspired. I love the history of the premiere in Paris, 1913. I have listened to the 36 minute orchestration over fifty times. I have watched over 20 productions of the ballet both live and recorded and I have had the privilege of performing in one production. I have read the most recent biography of Segei Diaghilev, the man who brought the originators of Le sacre, Nijinsky and Stravinsky, together and produced the first incendiary performance. I have watched the Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky movie several times (the first 20 minutes of the film is the imagined opening night of the ballet). The infamy, mythology, history, and reality of Le sacre du printemps incite feelings of passion, vigor, and reverence within me.
If everything I am saying sounds like a foreign language to you and you are unsure what Le sacre du printemps is and if it's even something worth knowing, here is probably the most familiar cultural association with Stravinsky's beast.
Disney's seminal classic Fantasia is how I first heard the notorious pounding, ritualistic rhythms of Stravinsky's score. In fact, as a child I would often request that we could skip the "dinosaur part" to the much more palatable Beethoven's Pastorale nymphs-frolicking-pegasus-flying-dionysian-hilarity-and-comfort part (and I was a kid who loved his dinosaurs), because something about the music was too dissonant for my young ears and watching the dinosaurs perish was depressing. However, this film introduced The Rite of Spring and many other landmark pieces of music in the Classical canon to an incredible amount of people outside the rather insular world of Classical music lovers. Like me as a 4 year old.
If Fantasia is the one-and-only Rite of Spring for you, first of all, props to you because this movie is one of the best things to ever be created on celluloid, and secondly here is a little back story.
The above clip is the Joffrey Ballet's re-creation of the original Nijinsky choreography that premiered May 29, 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Watching it now it seems very tame and old-fashioned, but when the music and the ballet premiered it caused a riot in the theater and changed the landscape of music and dance in the 20th century. Stravinsky's inspiration for the score came from Russian pagan rituals. The libretto is simple and the punch line is that a village girl is chosen as a sacrificial rite to the God of Spring and she must dance herself to death in front of her fellow villagers. Stravinsky also stated that he wanted to capture the brilliance, intensity, and extreme suddenness of the beginning of Spring in Russia--how everything seems to explode from frozen tundra to colorful, lively landscape in a few moments. Nijinsky's choreography featured ballet dancers' feet turned-in with bent knees and angular, sharp gestures, the anti-thesis of Petipa and the Romantic story ballets. This combination of innovative and shocking music and choreography incited a riot in the Parisian theatre causing the police to have to put a cease to the discord that remained throughout the entire performance regardless of their presence.
This piece of music is a leviathan in terms of cultural weight and precedence. It has inspired over 100 different versions of the ballet ranging from solo to post-modern to equestrian. Here are a few noteworthy versions:
I have cited Pina Bausch's version of Le sacre on this blog before, but it is so brilliant and I love it so much that it is worth mentioning again. The use of soil is as simple as it is effective in creating a matching atmosphere worthy of the demanding music. If you want to see more of it (and an awesome movie) watch Pina, the Wim Wenders film in honor of her work.
This is Maurice Bejart's version from 1970 that caused almost equal outrage in Europe when it premiered as the original. People thought it was blasphemous, degrading the music with overtly sexual movements from barely clothed dancers. Those complaints seem laughable now when we think about our current definition of overt sexuality, but Bejart was a rule breaker who paved the way for many choreographers who imbue a strong sense of sexuality and non-ballet movements in their choreography.
Molissa Fenley is one of my mentors at Mills College and she created State of Darkness as a solo for herself which she performed internationally. It is an incredible piece of work and quite possibly takes the most amount of endurance ever imagined as the performer is onstage for 36 minutes of straight dancing. In this recording it id performed by Jonathan Poretta of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Fenley set it on Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB, back when he was a principal at City Ballet. (There's a cool documentary of her setting it on Boal with Baryshnikov.) Take note of the weight of the stage space and the relationship with the music.
Upon seeing this production for the first time, I've searched with no reward of finding out who choreographed this and who the performers are, all I know is that it took place in Paris. There is not much to say other than, " Horses!!" This production definitely takes the aesthetic of pagan ritual to a whole new level in terms of performance and the performed body. I would love to know what this rehearsal process was like and who funded it, because it is insane.
This version was created in 2001 by Angelin Preljojac. It takes the libretto and the idea of an isolated vulnerable sacrificial woman to a very literally and although I'm not wild about the choreography or the obviousness of the concept, the dancer is an incredible mover and it is important to know within the canon of Le sacre ballets and what they inspire.
This is an excerpt of the production by choreographer Shen Wei. His company was born out of the American Dance Festival and he is one of the most innovative modern dance choreographers currently working. This version is not set to the full orchestration but to the score Stravinsky composed for two grand pianos. In addition to being much less costly to produce, it also creates a different relationship with the movement. I think Shen Wei did a superlative job matching the sparseness of the piano score with a sparse set, costumes, and choreography. He said, "after repeatedly listening to Stravinsky's archetypal score, I identified several body systems and created a movement vocabulary that matched the quality found in the music as I heard it."
Salvatore Aiello's Rite of Spring is perhaps my most favorite version of the ballet, and not just because it was the one I performed in ( I was on stage a total of two minutes). To me it matches movement with the music most perfectly and presents the libretto in its original conception with fresh energy and exquisite dancing. It saddens me that this version is so unknown because it is truly a masterpiece.