One hundred years ago this week, a ballet premiered that changed the art world. Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps — The Rite of Spring — was first seen by the public on May 29, 1913, in Paris. As the orchestra played The Rite's swirling introduction, the audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées began to murmur. Then the curtain opened.
Dancers dressed in folkloric costumes began to move unpredictably to the pounding chords. In the theater, the rumbles grew to pandemonium — hoots and jeers, arguments and even fistfights between traditionalists and modernists in the audience. It became difficult to hear the music.
The composer, who was sitting in the theater, described the scene in a 1965 interview, included in the documentary Stravinsky.
"When the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down ... the storm broke," Stravinsky said. "They came for Scheherazade, or for Cleopatra. And they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stupid people."
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross says Stravinsky shocked the audience with a revolution in harmony.
"You have these two chords slammed together: E Major — actually F-Flat Major, as it's spelled in the score — and an E-Flat Dominant 7th chord," Ross explains. "These are two adjacent chords. They're dissonant. They're being jammed together. And that's a harsh sound, and he keeps insisting on it. That chord repeats and repeats and repeats, pounding away."
And then, Ross says, there was Stravinsky's revolution in rhythm.
"It seems as though at first he's just going to have this regular pulse. But then these accents start landing in unexpected places, and you can't quite get the pattern of it," Ross says. "It's as if you're in a boxing ring, and this sort of brilliant fighter is coming at you from all directions with these jabs."
As unsettling as the music was, the audience at the premiere of The Rite of Spring was even more shocked by Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography.
"This was not ballet," says Lynn Garafola, a professor of dance at Barnard College and author of a history called Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. "It was a style of expressive performance that was extremely violent, and that seemed to depart completely from conventional ballet vocabulary.
"It included a lot of stamping. It included jumps. It didn't aspire to be ethereal — in other words, to look like jumps that could hang in the air. ... They seemed to go up simply to crash down into the earth. And then there were parts where they were simply trembling, when their hands were in fists, doing something that seemed, for all the world, to be primitive."
The story itself is primitive: An ancient Russian tribe makes a sacrifice to the gods of fertility; a virgin is chosen; and she dances herself to death.
But Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, who staged the ballet, was also intent on presenting modern works. Stravinsky had already written two scores for the company, The Firebird and Petrushka. He said the idea for The Rite of Spring came to him in a dream. He also claimed a sort of mystical creative process.
"Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, and no theory," Stravinsky said. "I had only my ear to help me. I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which the Sacre passed."
However it came to Stravinsky, Alex Ross says the music still has an impact.
"The Rite felt completely different. And that has remained a very powerful influence," Ross says. "Even the youngest composers coming to the fore today listen to The Rite and think, 'my God.' It still sounds new to them."
The Rite of Spring influenced 20th century composers from Bartok and Stockhausen to Steve Reich and the American minimalists. Within a year of the premiere, the score was hailed by critics and audiences as a masterpiece.
As for the ballet, Nijinksy's original choreography was abandoned after the initial run, and wouldn't be seen again until the 1980s.
But historian Lynn Garafola says the choreography had an equally dramatic impact on the world of dance.
"I think it was the beginning of what eventually becomes modern dance. It meant that it was possible to create a large-scale work — not a work for a soloist — that departed from the traditional vocabularies of ballet," she says. "This was a new kind of ballet, a new kind of choreography, and a new kind of music."
In the century since its premiere, The Rite of Spring has become a symbol of what's modern. And Igor Stravinsky knew better than to try a sequel.
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