Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Most Controversial Ballet Performance of All Time

Igor Stravinsky, 1937.  Photo by the Library of Congress. 

The premier of Igor Stravinski's Rite of Spring, which ended in a full scale riot, took place 100 years ago today.

On May 29, 1913, a new ballet, composed by a 30-year old Russian who considered himself to be the "inventor of music" premiered at the Theatres des Champs-Elysee in Paris,  The choreographer was an avant-garde artist named Vaslav Nijinksy. The house was full for the three-ballet night, in which Rite of Spring (or Le Sacre du Printeps would come second.)

The violent reaction against the work began with the first bars of the music.  Stravinsky was so annoyed with the disturbance during the first section that he left the auditorium to watch the proceedings from the wings of the stage.  By the time of the section of the ballet called the "Augurs of Spring," there was so much shouting and jeering amongst the audience members that the dancers could not hear the music.  Najinki, the choreographer, had to pound on the stage to help them keep the pace.  The disturbance turned into a full-scale riot, with patrons punching one another and the violence supposedly spilling out onto the street.  

What in the world could cause ballet-goers, not the most combative audience you might imagine, to erupt into violence?  Well, the first was the radical nature of the music and dancing. Musically, The Rite of Spring is a brutal and horrifying work, characterized by jumping, lurching rhythms that practically shake the listener out of his seat.  It is dissonant and loud (it requires an extra large orchestra), and it was a direct provocation to the bourgeois section of the audience.  Here is the "Augurs of Spring," the point at which the riot got out of hand.

The second reason it caused such a stir was because of the conflict between classes in the audience. On one hand were the wealthy patrons, who wanted to enjoy another pleasant night at the ballet.  In the cheaper seats, however, were the bohemian types, the "moderns," some of whom might have been admirers of Stravinsky's earlier works such as Petrushka.  When the Rite lurched to is dissonant climax, the wealthy patrons didn't shout down the performers of the ballet, but the bohemians whose presence and influence had ruined their night.

In the end, Stravinky's shocking modernism won, and May 29, 1913 became one of the most important dates in the development of western music.  The next performances of The Rite were met with adoration of the critics and audiences, and it is performed regularly today.  

I had the chance to hear it performed by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra last year.  The stage was positively crammed with musicians, and it was the loudest sound I have ever experienced at a symphony.  I watched one lady in one of the front rows as the music built to its conclusion (in which a woman is sacrificed in a pagan ritual by being forced to dance herself to death.)  She was growing more and more uncomfortable as the sound grew louder, until she finally clamped her palms onverher ears.

If you are moderately interested in hearing what the Rite is all about, you can check out the lovely opening below.  That instrument you are hearing is a bassoon, though no other bassoon has ever sounded like that.

If you are seriously interested in learning more about the work, there is this amazing online resource on the Keeping Score website, brought to you by the San Francisco Orchestra.  You can see the score, hear information from the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and understand The Rite of Spring on an entirely different level.

Below is a mere trailer for the site:

Works Cited:

Self, Will. "More operas should end in riots, or at least the torching of suits." New Statesman [1996] 30 Nov. 2012: 54. General OneFile. Web. 28 May 2013.

"Stravinsky's eternal Spring changed music forever." Age [Melbourne, Australia] 29 May 2013: 43. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 May 2013.


  1. I'd love to be in a theatre audience that cared enough to become violent. I'd slip away before things got too out of hand though.

    It's only at film festivals that I've been in an audience willing to even boo. Even then, not all that much. I have seen people walk out of theatre performances in a huff, but they didn't jeer the actors on their way out.

    1. But I guess a ballet is different. You are already pissed off and have a short temper simply due to the fact that you're at, you know, a ballet. At that point, you're just looking for a reason to punch someone.