Rite of Spring: a revolutionary riot

Sunday 3 November, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 1-3Arts and culture

This year marks 100 years since the greatest male dancer of the early twentieth century, Vaslav Nijinsky, retired from the ballet stage; 100 years since composer Igor Stravinsky finished his famous Russian period and began his neoclassical; 100 years since artist Nicholas Roerich fled revolutionary Russia for London; and the ninetieth anniversary of impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s death.

Of all these men’s legacies, their greatest achievement has since become legend. The riot that broke out during the premiere of The Rite of Spring in the Theatre de Champs Elysees in Paris in May 1913 has taken on a mythical quality – much like the action of the ballet itself.

At a time when the cultural scene in Moscow and St Petersburg was hungry for French art, Belle Époque Paris was starving for all things Russian. Spotting a gap in the market for Eastern tales of exotic splendour and noble savagery, impresario Sergei Diaghilev let loose his company of dancers, The Ballet Russes. Assembling teams of radical artists, composers and choreographers, Diaghilev whipped up cultural Russophilia in the Avant-Garde world.

The climax was the creative team consisting of the rebellious composer Stravinsky, the mystical artist and amateur archaeologist Roerich, and the Ballet Russes’s star attraction dancer (and Diaghilev’s lover), Nijinsky. Together, they presented The Rite of Spring – a ballet set in ancient Russia, where a pagan tribe celebrates the return of spring with games, dances and rituals – culminating in the sacrifice of a young virgin dancing herself to death to appease the sun god.

Stravinsky’s ground-breaking score took Eastern European folk tunes and melodies, which he inverted, spliced together and simply stole – producing jarring dissonance and disturbing results. Roerich’s set and costume designs drew upon his extensive knowledge of early Russian history, archaeological excavations and interest in mysticism. Nijinsky’s choreography dismissed the beauty and grace The Ballet Russes had become known for, and turned his dancers’ feet inwards and kept their elbows fixed to their ribs, making them stamp and jump instead.

It would be easy to assume that the combination of the arresting music, dazzling colours, and the frenzied choreography was what led the audience to descend into riot at the premiere. But closer inspection reveals an almost prophetic look at the revolutionary mood that was about to sweep across Europe. The appetite for primitivism and celebration of ancient folklore signalled Russia grappling with its own identity and the rise of nationalism; the injustice of the virgin sacrifice to ensure the next harvest carried overtones of fascism and dictatorship; and the tribe’s barbarism nodding to the appalling inequality faced by the Russian proletariat. All this manifested into chaos in the auditorium, a premonition of the powder keg waiting to go off in St Petersburg four years later, a sound that would echo across Europe.

Not only did The Rite of Spring revolutionise the artistic scene its time – it predicted the revolutions that defined the twentieth century, both political and cultural. The themes it introduced seem to carry just as much relevance today. Indeed, with social and political tensions rising at the start of this next period of history, is another riot overdue?