In Paris, it started a riot.
In London, where it played a week or two later, the dance was dismissed by one critic as having “little or no regard for the lines of beauty,” while the score was derided as having “no relation to music at all as most of us understand the word.”
“It” was “The Rite of Spring,” which the Ballets Russes premiered on May 29, 1913, with choreography by dance legend Vaslav Nijinsky set to an Igor Stravinsky score that’s now universally recognized as a modernist masterpiece.
This week, Canada’s Compagnie Marie Chouinard brings its 1993 version of “The Rite of Spring” to the UW World Series at Meany Hall. Judging from clips posted on the World Series’ website, this “Rite,” with its partial nudity and animalistic movement, may still offend genteel dance lovers. But for anyone thrilled by Stravinsky’s “Rite,” Chouinard’s production promises to be a visceral experience.
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When Chouinard’s company brought its version of “Orpheus and Eurydice” to On the Boards in 2008, a Seattle Times reviewer praised the troupe’s “astonishing language of energized, tormented beauty,” calling it “primordial and futuristic both.”
That sounds like a perfect fit for “Rite.”
Meany Hall director Michelle Witt identifies Chouinard’s “Rite” as “one of the major iconic interpretations of this piece.” Another, she says, is Pina Bausch’s.
This “Rite” is the second Meany production this season to feature live local musicians accompanying dance performance. The UW Symphony Orchestra, under Jonathan Pasternack, will be playing, and in rehearsal earlier this month they made the whole hall vibrate impressively.
This will mark the first time that Compagnie Marie Chouinard has performed the piece to live orchestral accompaniment. The other item on the program, “24 Preludes by Chopin,” has live accompaniment, too, with UW School of Music doctoral student Brooks Tran on piano.
Witt worried that CMC would balk at the idea of live music accompanying both pieces, noting that Chouinard’s choreography is highly complex and that crack timing is essential to it. But to her surprise and pleasure, they were up for it.
“They were very much on board, as long as we could create enough rehearsal time for them,” she says. The collaboration is a “pilot project” that Witt hopes to build on, connecting local musicians with visiting artists, as she did last fall when Seattle Modern Orchestra played the Arvo Pärt score for Paul Taylor Dance Company’s “The Uncommitted.”
CMC’s performance is also part of a campuswide celebration of “Rite,” largely coordinated by Witt, including a lecture series at the Henry Art Gallery running through May, that comes at “The Rite of Spring” from all angles.
What makes this piece so special?
“What really is remarkable for me,” Pasternack says, “is how the piece stands up after 100 years, and it still sounds new. … It’s still a source of inspiration and ideas for contemporary composers.”
Nevertheless, he adds, it can be easy to miss what was revolutionary about it: “We’re so familiar with this music now after 100 years that you really have to think about what Stravinsky did, with his orchestration in particular, and how he pushed all the instruments to their extremes in terms of range and in terms of possibilities of expression and sound combination and color.”
He cites “the magical opening with the bassoon playing in the very highest regions of its register. … This is something that audiences had never heard before — never heard the bassoon playing that high, certainly never heard a piece of orchestral music that began with a bassoon solo like this.”
The music’s other key innovation was the irregularity and sophisticated savagery of its rhythms. For Pasternack’s UW Symphony players, who may be familiar with the piece mostly through recordings, the orchestral arrangements that produce those timbres and rhythms pose a challenge.
“It sounds a lot different from what it looks like in the score,” Pasternack notes, “and vice versa.”
Witt, who’s a violinist by background and has played “Rite” several times, knew she wanted to do something special for the centenary of the 1913 ballet. “That time period is just so critical in terms of the birth of modernism and the interdisciplinarity of the music and the visual arts and dance. It was such an important work that I wanted to be able to celebrate that time period.”
For all its innovation, she doesn’t find it a forbidding piece. “It’s so organic,” she says. “It just feels really good to play it, in that it’s very natural and instinctual.”
The music had its champions even at the time of its premiere. Indeed, one reason for the riot was that the people vociferously appalled by it and the people wanting to hear it actually came to blows.
American writer-photographer Carl Van Vechten left a vivid account of it: “I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me, one young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the music.”
Dancer Marie Rambert — who later founded Ballet Rambert, England’s oldest dance company — was performing that night. In 1972 she recalled, “At the first sounds of the music, shouts and hissing started in the audience, and it was very difficult for us on the stage to hear the music, the more so as part of the audience began to applaud in an attempt to drown out the hissing. We all desperately tried to keep time without being able to hear the rhythm clearly. In the wings Nijinsky counted the bars to guide us. Pierre Monteux conducted undeterred.”
Anticipating trouble, Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, had instructed everyone to keep going no matter what. For all the unsettling power of Stravinsky’s music, Nijinsky’s choreography was just as revolutionary — and Diaghilev had set it up to have the maximum effect by staging Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,” an homage to romantic ballet, on the first half of the program.
“What a clever man,” says Betsy Cooper, director of the dance program at the UW, who trained under Ballets Russes dancers Alexandra Danilova and Felia Doubrov, from the Balanchine period.
“Les Sylphides,” she explains, is “kind of the quintessential ballet, with white tutus and pointe shoes and Chopin. It’s all light and etherealness and poetry. And to put that in front, and then to have ‘Rite’ … I mean, talk about setting the audience up for the shock of the new!”
Unlike Stravinsky’s masterpiece, which soon became a staple of the orchestral repertoire, Nijinsky’s choreography, famously accused of being a “crime against grace,” fell to the wayside after only nine performances, despite having its champions. Contemporary critic Jacques Rivière’s 1913 essay on it, included in Robert Gottlieb’s 2008 anthology “Reading Dance,” couldn’t be sharper about it. Calling it both “a sociological ballet” and “a biological ballet,” he wrote, “As soon as one ceases to confuse grace with symmetry and with arabesques, one will find it on each page of Le Sacre de Printemps. … Grace does not signify smooth roundedness; it is not incompatible with angular design.”
Yet when the Ballets Russes brought “Rite” back into their repertory in 1920, it was with a new choreographic setting by Léonide Massine. Nijinsky’s work was believed lost until Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer reconstructed it, resulting in a Joffrey Ballet production in 1987 (findable on YouTube).
“We’ll never really know what the piece looked like,” Cooper advises. “We think they were sort of standing pigeon-toed with these heavy capes and bear-heads and long braids and white makeup and red cheeks and these very pedestrian utilitarian costumes — the antithesis of ballet, right?”
Folk dance was a strong influence.
“They’re weighted and they’re heavy,” Cooper explains, “working in all these patterns with their backs to the audience. … It has this sort of sculptural heaviness, this mass to it, like they’re made out of mud — like clay people.”
The narrative line, concerning a pagan Russian tribe gathering to sacrifice a “Chosen Virgin,” may have put off some viewers.
“People talk about the timing of this piece,” Cooper notes. “It’s on the cusp of World War I, this cataclysmic event that changes the world. … I imagine that this sort of well-heeled audience, being confronted with this primal, somewhat brutal and nonindividualistic story, didn’t really want to face that.”
Those very themes, however, may be what’s contributed to the ballet’s longevity. Cooper guesses that as many as 100 different choreographers have created their own versions of it, including Chouinard, Bausch, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Trey McIntyre, Glen Tetley, Molissa Fenley and others.
“Birth, death, sex, regeneration, brutality, this sense of community sacrifice, are some of the ideas that propel it forward,” Cooper says. Not every choreographer, she adds, sticks to the narrative of the 1913 original. But many have, even if they treat the themes more abstractly.
One measure of the excitement “Rite” inspires is that Witt herself is contemplating sitting in with UW Symphony’s second violin section just so she can play it again.
Pasternack has his own reasons to be thrilled: “It’s a very big deal. It’s important for any orchestra program at a university the size of the UW to be able to experience playing for a ballet, playing for an opera. … We’re basically guest artists,” he says of his student orchestra, “and I think they understand that that comes with a heightened level not only of prestige but also of responsibility.”
As for Cooper, she’s psyched about both the music and Chouinard: “She’s a really inventive choreographer. I think it’ll be visually dazzling. … I fully expect we’re going to have our minds blown.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org