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May 29 2013

Vesna Svyashchennaya

Perhaps better known as Le Sacre du Printemps or The Rite of Spring it celebrates it’s 100th anniversary today.

At the risk of spoilers, the story revolves around pagan celebrations of the coming of spring with the most memorable part being the choice of a sacrificial victim who dances herself to death.

Yeah, like opera there are no happy endings in ballet.

But what was really controversial was Stravinsky’s Avant Guarde music which has, ironically, turned out to be one of the most influential works of the 20th century as well as one of the most recorded (though I would hold Petrushka or Firebird as being a better introduction to Stravinsky’s work and much more accessible for the average listener).

On the evening of the 29 May the theatre was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never…has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear”. The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Karsavina danced the main roles. The Rite followed; there is general agreement among eyewitnesses and commentators that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring”. Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the step numbers to the dancers. The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head”, though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on”. Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected-possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s programme continued.

This performance is by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Ballet, Valery Gergiev – conductor.  Rodion Tolmachev is the featured bassoonist.

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