Le sacre du printemps premieres in Paris
29 May 1913
Well I've gone way back in time for this, but what a great place to start this greatest cultural moments timeline for the century, in Paris with a Russian ballet! This great work (Le sacre du printemps, aka The Rite of Spring or Весна священная) was a collaboration of four men: music by Igor Stravinsky (Игорь Фёдорович Стравинский, 1882-1971), choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky (Ва́цлав Фоми́ч Нижи́нский, 1889-1950), set design and costumes by Nicholas Roerich (Никола́й Константи́нович Рéрих, 1874-1947), production by Sergei Diaghilev (Серге́й Па́влович Дя́гилев, 1872-1929) for his Ballets Russes. These were some of the greatest artistic minds of the century. The ballet premiered in Paris on 29 May 1913, and from surviving accounts it is clear that the audience was upset (a riot was narrowly averted) and had no idea what was happening on the stage. The ballet was so much different than other "classical" ballet productions of the time.
The opening bassoon solo is followed by discordant sounds coming from all kinds of instruments (playing loudly) and from all kinds of different angles--Stravinsky used a very large orchestra. To a 1913 audience it must have sounded as if the orchestra was just warming up! When was the music really going to start? But it had already begun. When the dancers appear on stage in sack cloths, hopping about, the audience wondered, Where was the beautiful figure of the ballerina dancing across the stage?
The ballet divides into two acts. The first part is the L'adoration de la Terre (the worship of the earth); followed by the second part Le Sacrifice (no translation needed). The first part is mostly just young girls dancing around on stage in preparation for the sacrifice to the nature god which will follow. At some point in act one, the mythical father Christmas figure appears on stage (see below). The second part is the sacrifice, and through most of the act, the prima ballerina just stands quivering, little dancing. You might wonder, where is the greatness in all of this?
This music ushered in the twentieth century. The power and frantic nature of the music and the dancing so very much expressed the age of the modern city (even though the ballet was hearkening back to a natural past thousands of years ago and an imagined age of early Slavic earth goddesses). That's the enduring paradox of the ballet (the past and modern intertwined; even though we think that we are modern, we are really still prehistoric). Another aspect symbolic of the modern age is the crush of dancers on the stage (think of the crush of people in the modern city) and the relative less prominent role for the prima ballerina (the individual of today), who stands there shaking, a sacrifice to a new age, a sacrifice that she is helpless to avoid.
Well, life was changing in the early twentieth century, and the ballet captured the essence of that change by invoking the imagery of a prehistoric Slavic past. In one dance, everyone on stage is banging on the floor--many people have that similar feeling about life today--and that was something the 1913 audience did not understand; why the banging? What did it all mean?
I have watched this many times now and still cannot figure out much of it, for example, the Father Frost figure, and I think that the ballet still challenges audiences today, which is why it is not performed that often. It does not provide clear answers. Stravinsky and his collaborators ended up capturing the absurd survival of myth and misperception at the start of the century, the weirdness of what lay ahead. The ballet is not all that long. Take an hour, watch and enjoy.