The Rite of Spring: As Seen in America’s Historical Newspapers
On May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, a dance and orchestral performance was given that has reverberated throughout the American art world for the past 100 years. Ballet Russes, the ballet company founded and directed by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, performed a dance choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to an orchestral piece composed by Igor Stravinsky. That performance, The Rite of Spring, portrayed a pagan Russian celebration of spring which culminated in the sacrifice of a young girl chosen to dance to her death.
Nijinsky’s choreography departed from the contemporary idea of ballet by incorporating pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, repetitive, stamping and jumping. If that wasn’t disconcerting enough, Stravinsky’s dissonant music, with its powerful, pulsating, irregular rhythm, was. Confronted by this combination of the primitive and the modern, which confounded current ideas of beauty, many in the audience jeered and hissed.
Five further Paris performances and the four in London all received mixed reviews, which were published across the Atlantic in American newspapers, as seen in the two examples below from newspapers published in Macon, Georgia, and Kansas City, Missouri.
THE CHOREOGRAPHER AND DANCER: VASLAV NIJINSKY
Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the great dancers of the early twentieth century. He was known for the emotional intensity of his performances as well as the virtuosity of his skills, which included superlative leaps and dancing en pointe. In 1916, Nijinsky traveled to the U.S. with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.
Nijinsky performed around the world with the Ballet Russes until 1919 when a nervous breakdown caused by schizophrenia ended his career. He was cared for by his wife, Romola de Pulszky, until his death in 1950.
Nijinsky remained a legendary figure for his daring originality.
His career and later life was the subject of the 1980 film Nijinsky.
THE IMPRESSARIO: SERGE DIAGHILEV & THE BALLET RUSSES
Sergei Diaghilev was a Russian critic and impresario who produced opera, theater, ballet and mounted exhibitions of Russian art in Russia and Paris. His success led to his establishment of the Ballet Russes, which brought celebrated Russian dancers to Paris. The Ballet Russes created a sensation wherever it performed. Diaghilev created a performing arts revolution that thrilled audiences by combining colorful, exciting avant-garde dance, choreography, costumes, sets, art, and music.
The influence of many of the visual artists he employed—Leon Bakst, Joan Miro, Alexandre Benois, Christian Berard, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Natalia Gonchorova, Jean Cocteau, Marie Laurencin, Salvador Dali, Coco Chanel, and Mikhail Larionov—is still felt today.
Diaghilev also transformed the role of the male dancer into the vigorous, athletic style exemplified by Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Serge Lifar, Leonide Massine, and George Balanchine in dance and choreography.
In addition to Igor Stravinsky’s work, he mounted ballets to the music of Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Edvard Grieg, Eric Satie, Manuel de Falla, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, Nikolai Tcherepnin, Ottorino Respighi, Francis Poulenc, and Darius Milhaud. Somewhere in America their music is played today.
THE COMPOSER: IGOR STRAVINSKY
Igor Stravinsky grew up expecting to be a lawyer in St. Petersburg, Russia. Instead he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and became a composer, pianist, and conductor. In 1909, after hearing a performance of Stravinsky’s Fireworks in St. Petersburg, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to compose orchestral works for the Ballet Russes in Paris. Three ballets were the result: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The latter, in particular, changed the course of music by demonstrating sounds and rhythms never thought possible.
The Rite of Spring is a wellspring of inspiration:
Igor Stravinsky, a naturalized American citizen, lived to be 88. After the success of his early ballet compositions, he continued composing, conducting and recording into his mid-80s. He is considered by many the greatest composer of classical music of the 20th century.