Nijinsky set it in tunics, Pina Bausch as a brutal battle of the sexes – so just how do you dance to Stravinsky's most violent score? Judith Mackrell talks to Akram Khan, Javier de Frutos and other leading choreographers about following the greats
When The Rite of Spring was premiered in Paris in 1913, it famously created the most violent brouhaha in ballet history, with critics condemning Stravinsky's music as barbarous and Nijinsky's choreography as senseless ugliness. One hundred years on, the original dance material may be lost, but Rite has become one of the most choreo-graphed scores in existence. It was danced solo by the US choreographer Molissa Fenley in 1988, and performed by 250 Berlin teenagers in a 2003 version by Royston Maldoom. It's been interpreted as a savage biological battle of the sexes by Pina Bausch, and as a luminous 3D spectacle by Klaus Obermaier.
With choreographers like Michael Clark, Paul Taylor and Kenneth MacMillan also ranking among its interpreters, Stravinsky's score is now, as Michael Keegan-Dolan dryly comments, "a rite of passage in itself". Yet the Irish choreographer – whose own 2009 version will feature in a season of Rite-inspired dances at Sadler's Wells – speaks for many when he says it's not just the music's notoriety that lures choreographers: "There's a whole education in there. If you use your imagination, it takes you right back to 1913. You're in the world of Stravinsky, Roerich [the ballet's original designer] and Nijinsky. You're in that room with all the boys when everything was changing so fast. And afterwards, you come out more fully realised as a choreographer."
Those "boys" certainly made history on 29 May 1913. Discarding the romanticism, glamour and faux-exoticism that were ballet's traditional selling points, Rite's creators channelled a new world for the dance stage – one in which men and women could be crushed by the forces of nature, and an innocent girl could be brutally sacrificed to callous gods. What made this doubly shocking to its audience was the modernity of its language. Stravinsky's score might have been based on the music of folkloric tradition, but it twisted and compressed its sources into searing shapes and sounds. Rhythms splintered and collided, harmonies clashed, instruments played in pulsing, shrieking registers. If this was an evocation of spring, it was no gentle pastoral, but a season of cracking ice, violent wind and burning sun. It was also prophetic: the following year, millions of young men would be sent off to battle, sacrificed in the name of God and empire.
If Stravinsky's music sounded cataclysmic, Nijinsky's choreography turned the logic of classical ballet inside out. Dancers in coarse tunics moved like peasants rather than princes and princesses: their shoulders were tense, their limbs awkwardly angled. They stamped, trembled and convulsed; when they jumped, they seemed hobbled by gravity, barely able to leave the floor. Protesters at the opening night shouted for a doctor, or even a dentist, given the convulsions of pain that seemed to afflict the dancers.
Many of the cast resented the ballet, too, regarding it as a bewilderingly perverse waste of their training. Yet Nijinsky's starkly physical choreography created a seismic shift, paving the way for a new era of modern dance. As Keegan-Dolan puts it: "The moment he chose to have his dancers turn in their toes, stick out their elbows and pound against the floor, everything changed."
For Keegan-Dolan, one key aspect of Rite was its attempt to create – and connect with – an atavistic past. "These men had the idea of showing a pagan vision of Russia that would shock their over-sophisticated, over-educated Paris audience." When making his own Rite, Keegan-Dolan set out to connect with his own ancestry, while steering clear of any Celtic twilight imagery. "I wanted to use my own imagination," he says. "So I went up to a cairn at the top of a mountain in Sligo, on a night with a full moon, and I just listened to the music. Then I knew what I wanted to do."
The result – with its sullen drunks, pale-faced witchy women, and lurching men who transform into hunting dogs – kicks off A String of Rites, the two-month Sadler's season. Also participating is the young Portuguese choreographer Mafalda Deville, part of the community dance project Riot Offspring, which will see 80 non-professionals take to the stage. For her, the music is paramount. Unlike Keegan-Dolan, she doesn't hear a narrative in there, so much as complex emotional states. "It's full of tensions and contradictions. I'm working with a group of single mothers and their babies on the opening bassoon solo. It's such a threatening sound, yet the image of these mothers and babies is so innocent. I like that paradox. The music gets deep into you and takes you to so many places."
Stravinsky didn't make things easy, though. As Nijinsky was first to discover, the score's shifting, irregular time signatures deviated from most rules of western music. Nijinsky was so tormented by these rhythms, he had to have an assistant – a very young Marie Rambert – count them out for him as he choreographed and rehearsed. To the Venezuelan-born Javier de Frutos, who has choreographed no fewer than four different Rites, the rhythms posed quite a challenge, although they weren't such an issue in his first two versions, since they were solos: "As a performer, I just reacted to them in a very instinctive way. It was when I started choreographing for others, and was having to explain the rhythms, that I realised how complex they were."
As De Frutos mastered Stravinsky's structure, though, he sensed himself growing as a choreographer. "In my solos, I used the score in a very personal, cathartic way. It was about me and the music. And I used the biggest possible recording I could find – Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic. When I came to make my last version, Milagros, for Royal New Zealand Ballet, I had developed a more intellectual approach. I found I wanted to use the pianola version [of the score], which was stripped right back. There's something supernatural about those rhythms when you hear them alone, without 150 instruments."
Akram Khan shares this reverence. "As a Kathak dancer, I'm used to working with complicated rhythms, but even I don't exactly understand how Rite works," he says. "To me, the most amazing thing about this music is that it's so emotional without being literal. Stravinsky created energy out of unique patterns he composed – and that energy translates directly into emotion."
Khan's contribution to A String of Rites isn't set to the original score, though. He prefers to collaborate with live composers – in this case Nitin Sawhney, Jocelyn Pook and Ben Frost. But he's also convinced he could never equal the 1975 version Bausch choreographed to Stravinsky. "When I hear the music," he says, "all I can see is her work." Khan focused on Stravinsky's life and career – the title of his work, iTMOi, standing for In the Mind of Igor. "It was such an extraordinary time Stravinsky was living in – a complete rupturing of the arts. And I wanted to explore that. We're still feeling its effects. If you listen to the music for Psycho or Jaws, you can hear Rite."De Frutos believes the music is inexhaustible. "I keep going back to it," he says. "Choreography is essentially about problem-solving, and this score presents more problems than any other. Even if I can only begin to solve them, I've achieved half the battle of being a choreographer. Of course, with one part of yourself, you have to forget the others who've worked on Rite – you have to own it. But I also have a huge sense of pride in being part of the long line of choreographers who've attempted to conquer Stravinsky's music. We've all pitched ourselves against the terror of his score."