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History of the Rite of Spring
Arts UW, University of Washington
January 1, 2013

Premiering in 1913, The Rite of Spring might be considered the most important single moment in the history of 20th century art, and its influence continues to be acknowledged across today’s cultural landscape.  Experimentation in the arts at the turn of the 20th century embodied ideas, in aesthetic and moral terms, of rebellion and an insurrection from central authority and The Rite of Spring became a focal point and catalyst for this movement.  

NY Time Graphic

The village maidens of the oriiginal 1913 "Rite of Spring," danced by the Ballets Russes. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

Written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, stage design and costumes by Nikolai Roerich, and full orchestral score by Igor Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, is a musical-choreographic masterpiece that represents primal pagan Russia and embodies the mystery and creative omnipotence of spring.  Diaghilev believed the mixture of visual, kinetic and musical elements in dance attained the ideal of Gestamtkunstwerk, a total art form superior to even opera, and sought, through the Ballet Russes, this ideal as an instrument of ultimate liberation.

The first performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on May 29, 1913 caused a near riot in the audience and left an indelible mark on performance history. The Rite challenged the sexual morality of the established disciplined and self-restrained order in Western Europe, and depicted birth, life and death as brutal, tragic, beyond individual fate and without moral purpose. The music was jarring, lacking in traditional beauty, with only a few brief melodic lines inspired by Russian folk music. Written for a massive orchestra of 120 instruments, the violence, dissonance and cacophony in the score were perceived to be as primitive as the theme.  The story itself tells an elemental tale of the celebration of the coming of spring, and the pagan ritual of a virgin sacrifice.

On the cusp of the Great War, political revolution was imminent, and the uprising at the first performance was perhaps as much a manifestation of pre-war tensions as a reaction to the The Rite itself. The moral ambiguity and dramatically nihilistic implications of the production anticipated the world-shattering experience of World War I. The Rite wiped the slate clean of the old "bourgeois" socio-political structures and sanctioned a new order that was truly revolutionary, radical, and ultra-modern.

“There is a fair bit of debate about whether it was Stravinsky's score or Nijinsky's choreography that caused the riot,” says Betsy Cooper, director of the Dance Program and the College’s interim divisional dean of the arts. “I think it is fair to say that it was both. The Rite of Spring, with its percussion and relentlessly driven score, no doubt disturbed the haute bourgeoisie audience that attended that night, but then imagine the added shock of a group of ballet dancers, clad in bearskin, simple cloth sheaths, long braids, and stark makeup that made them look faintly like Plains Indians. There were no pointe shoes or pink slippers in sight. Dancers stood pigeon toed, stamped their feet, shook, and quaked, stood hunched over. It was, as one critic stated, perceived as ‘a crime against grace.’ It looked nothing like ballet or a stage of ballet dancers. It was cataclysmic in every sense. The themes of Rite were equally shocking--the notion that in order for the group to survive, a sacrifice must be made.”

Many choreographers have set their own innovative adaptations of Rite over the years, including Leonide Massine (1920), Glen Tetley (1974), Pina Bausch (1975), Paul Taylor (1980), Martha Graham (1984), Molissa Fenley (1988), Shen Wei (2003), and the Joffrey Ballet (1987) reconstruction based on Nijinsky’s choreography.  Walt Disney’s well-known animated film Fantasia (1940) also featured music from The Rite. In all, at least 150 productions have been created since the initial premiere.

“The score is iconic and brilliant,” says Cooper. “It begs to be worked with. The themes of birth, sacrifice and regeneration are universal and primal. And the history of the premiere and the ensuing mental breakdown of Nijinksy adds to the allure of the work. I suppose one could also liken it to a sort of artistic Mount Everest. Given the notoriety of the original production, of which there were only seven performances, it is not surprising that other choreographers would want to assume the challenge of making a great Rite."

Thought to be lost, Nijinksy’s original choreography was reconstructed in a heroic effort by the Joffrey Ballet (1987), in collaboration with choreographer and dance historian Millicent Hodson and her husband Kenneth Archer. The film, The Search for Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, documents the exciting reconstruction and is shown as part of the UW Rite Centennial Lecture Series.  Also as part of this lecture series, UW faculty members share several of the most significant settings of the Rite in conversation about the Rite’s ongoing significance and influence on a vast range of contemporary choreographers.

In addition to the choreography, Igor Stravinsky’s music was tremendously compelling, scandalous and pioneering. His orchestral setting of The Rite was one of the most important moments in the history of 20th century music, and its premiere has influenced generations of composers since. The Rite contained an astounding array of ground-breaking ideas, including bold new experiments in harmonic dissonance and bi-tonality, displaced accents, complex meters and rhythms, and a new hierarchy of rhythm, harmony and melody that set the musical world afire with both excitement and outrage.

“Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is a perfect example of the radical tradition of Western Art Music”, says Richard Karpen, Director of the UW School of Music. “For well over a thousand years great composers have each in turn created new works through inventing and discovering new sounds, forms, and concepts that challenge the modalities of their predecessors. Listening to The Rite of Spring, it now resonates as a timeless masterwork along with music of all time, sounding to our 21st century ears much more like traditional classical music than it did 100 years ago. And as occurred for over a millennium, the best music we create today within this radical tradition will a 100 years from now
resonate as timelessly beautiful.”

Stravinsky also created a two-hand piano version of The Rite that was subsequently lost.  Acclaimed pianist Jon Kimura Parker will present his own exciting, and fiendishly difficult, arrangement of the immense Rite for solo piano in May 2013 on the President’s Piano Series.  The UW Rite Centennial Lecture Series: Music of Today presents UW faculty discussing the range of the Rite’s and Stravinsky’s musical influence and uses the work as a jumping off point for the exploration of 21st century compositional processes and perspectives through the lens of their own compositions.

For the centennial celebration, UW dance professor Jurg Koch choreographs a fresh new Rite of Spring for the Dance Program’s January concert. The Rite Centennial Lecture Series, presented by UWWS and featuring Dance Program and School of Music faculty and graduate students, will run throughout spring 2013.

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