When Igor Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) premiered during the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, its avant-garde music and jarring choreography scandalized audiences. Today it is considered one of the most influential musical works of the twentieth century. In this volume, the ballet finally receives the full critical attention it deserves, as distinguished music and dance scholars discuss the meaning of the work and its far-reaching influence on world music, performance, and culture. Essays explore four key facets of the ballet: its choreography and movement; the cultural and historical contexts of its performance and reception in France; its structure and use of innovative rhythmic and tonal features; and the reception of the work in Russian music history and theory.
About the Author
Severine Neff is the Eugene Falk Distinguished Professor of Music Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is author of The Musical Idea and the Logic, Technique, and Art of Its Presentation (with Patricia Carpenter); Coherence, Counterpoint, Instrumentation, Instruction in Form; and The Second String Quartet in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 10: A Norton Critical Score. She served as Editor-in-Chief of Music Theory Spectrum.
Gretchen Horlacher is Professor of Music at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University at Bloomington. She is author of Building Blocks: Repetition and Continuity in Stravinsky’s Music.
Maureen A. Carr is Distinguished Professor of Music Theory at The Pennsylvania State University. She is author of After the Rite: Stravinsky’s Path to Neoclassicism (1914–1925); Multiple Masks: Neoclassicism in Stravinsky’s Works on Greek Subjects; and two facsimile editions for A-R Editions: Stravinsky’s "Pulcinella": A Facsimile of the Sources and Sketches, and Stravinsky’s "Histoire du soldat": A Facsimile of the Sketches.
John Reef is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Nazareth College.
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The Rite of Spring at 100
By Severine Neff, Maureen Carr, Gretchen Horlacher, John Reef
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2017 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
A Century of Rites: The Making of an Avant-Garde Tradition
Since the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913, scores of choreographic works to the celebrated Stravinsky music have seen the light of day. In 1987, when Joan Acocella and I compiled a list of as many productions as we could document for the Dance Critics Association symposium "The Rite of Spring at Seventy-Five," the number was forty-four. (Of course, that was in the Dark Ages before Google and the Internet!) By the time we republished the list in Ballet Review in 1992, it had climbed to seventy-five, including more than twenty earlier versions we had missed. Since then the numbers have grown exponentially. In 1999 the Italian critic Ada d'Adamo counted ninety-three versions. Three years later, "Stravinsky the Global Dancer," the database developed by Stephanie Jordan and her colleague Larraine Nicholas at Roehampton University in 2002, recorded 181 settings of the score, with roughly half since 1990 and with several choreographers staging multiple versions. After a brief slackening, the numbers spiked again in 2013, with countless new productions and revivals of old ones marking The Rite's centenary. Seemingly the idea of the now-legendary work coupled with its memorable score posed an irresistible challenge.
Even as the productions keep coming, like Vaslav Nijinsky's original they keep disappearing, with perhaps two dozen or so in active repertory. To be sure, few dance works outlive the first decade of their creation. They may leave traces, documentary and otherwise, but as living works they enter the limbo of non-performance, where they languish long after any hope of retrievability has gone. Yet The Rite of Spring, despite the absence of a definitive theatrical text, continues to occupy cultural space. In the introduction to her book The Archive and the Repertoire, performance scholar Diana Taylor muses: "Is performance that which disappears, or that which persists, transmitted through a nonarchival system of transfer that I ... call the repertoire?" In other words, is the cultural relevance of The Rite of Spring linked to what Taylor calls "the paradoxical omnipresence of the disappeared"? Or, to put it a little differently, does the cycle of loss and renewal built into the very identity of the ballet inspire its continuous reinvention? Is the very absence of a fixed, stable, or permanent choreographic text what accounts for the ballet's staying power? If so, what ideologies and impulses do these Rites seem to espouse, what conventions do they reject, and why have they retained their imaginative force?
In this essay I argue that The Rite of Spring, precisely because it is a lost ballet, comprises a body of ideas rather than a detailed choreographic script and that this conceptual freedom allows both for the ballet's continual reinvention and for the persistence of ideas associated with the original. One group of ideas centers on the ballet's transgressiveness — its primitivism, violence, modernity, and repudiation of traditional ballet aesthetics — all underscored by the "riot" that took place at the premiere. From this perspective The Rite is a model of formal radicalism, a dance that says "no" to the status quo and hints at freedoms beyond the stage. At the same time, The Rite belongs to ballet's canon. It was produced by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, an heir to the nineteenth-century Franco-Russian tradition and the progenitor of its twentieth-century descendants. It was produced on a grand scale, and its central conceit — the death of the maiden — has a long ballet history. Finally, it was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the company's celebrity danseur and Diaghilev's lover, whose career was cut short by mental illness, a tragedy that memorialized him as a mad genius. From the first, The Rite proclaimed its centrality to ballet history, even as it rejected the conventions of the past and exuded a whiff of scandal.
Since 1913, choreographers have approached The Rite from numerous vantage points. Some have emphasized its violence; others its sexuality, primitivism, and terror. Many have thrown out the original scenario and some even most of the score (Akram Khan uses only thirty seconds of it); nearly all have discarded the original ethnographic trimmings. Although most productions stress the ensemble, there have been a few heroic solo versions. Initially, ballet choreographers, albeit those identified as modernists, created the versions that followed Nijinsky's Rite. Subsequently, most of the work's choreographers have been associated with modern dance. But whatever the choreographer's aesthetic position, The Rite continues to be a work that insists upon its modernity, its engagement with the contemporary world. For, ultimately, what each new version seeks to resurrect is the ballet's original transgressive moment, its modernist persona, both as an act of resistance and as a means of claiming membership in a performance tradition that defies the ephemeral nature of dance through continual reinvention.
Kul'tura versus Scythians
In Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works through "Mavra," Richard Taruskin analyzes the music of The Rite of Spring in terms of the distinction drawn by the poet Alexander Blok between kul'tura, or culture, and stikhiia, the elemental force that sprang from the people. Kul'tura was rootless, artificial, and inauthentic, an expression of the elite, whereas stikhiia encompassed the life and culture of the contemporary Russian peasant. Writing in the first decade of the twentieth century, Blok urged artists to renounce culture and emulate those who still practiced the ancient rituals and performed the ancient dances. He dreamed of wholeness, of a reconciliation with the earth, of union with nature. For Stravinsky as a composer, kul'tura signified any number of things, from musical folklorism to nineteenth-century art music and the German symphonic tradition, with its ideas of musical structure, harmonic progression, and thematic development. Stikhiia, by contrast, embraced the uncouth, elemental, and unmediated. It was closely associated with Scythianism, a term applied to artworks thought to embody — and here I quote Taruskin again — the "elemental and maximalistic rendering of primitive antiquity in a shockingly coarse and brutal manner." In Stravinsky's score it was associated with peasant ceremonial songs (many of great antiquity); the radical transformation that rendered them almost invisible, a formal simplification so extreme it appeared to deny all refinement of thought and feeling; and the complexity and even violence of the composer's rhythmic innovations.
Neither Nijinsky nor his sister Bronislava Nijinska, for whom the role of the Chosen Maiden was originally created and who later wrote about the ballet in her memoirs, ever referred to The Rite of Spring in terms of kul'tura and stikhiia. Yet the tension between the two haunts virtually every aspect of the ballet's staging, from its movement vocabulary and rhythmic dynamics to its spatial configurations, performance style, narrative approach, and costumes. That tension is played out in the choreography or architecture of the work and in the bodies of the dancers who brought it to life, one of many universes they inhabited in the course of a single season. Like classical music, ballet was an imported art in Russia and, as such, a prime example of kul'tura, even if many of the earliest dancers were serfs. It arrived in the early eighteenth century following Peter the Great's "reforms," and from the start it was identified with the West. Ballet masters, who typically combined the functions of choreographer, teacher, and performer, traveled from Italy and France, bringing stars and repertory, along with composers and "machinists" to create both sound environments and spectacular effects. By the nineteenth century the schools attached to the Moscow and St. Petersburg companies were among the finest in Europe, although the talent and repertory, with very few exceptions, continued to flow from West to East, and few ballets featured any Russian content, however anodyne. Russianness lay in the bodies of the dancers and in the political economy of a system of state support that all but insulated the Imperial Theaters from both the economic marketplace and the intrusion of contemporary ideas.
Although the dancers may have been Russian, their technique belonged to the West. Ballet had its origins in the courts of Renaissance Italy and acquired both an identity and a nomenclature in the France of Louis XIV. Ballet technique impersonated the pose and stance of aristocracy, even when the performers ceased to be "noble amateurs" and came instead from clans of dancing and music masters and from the fairgrounds. Turnout (the outward rotation of the hips), symmetry, and a codified series of foot and arm positions were the building blocks of the new technique, which by the eighteenth century had developed a vocabulary of virtuosic jumps and "beaten" steps. Pointework, which emerged in the 1820s to become a badge of ballerina identity, opened other areas of virtuosity while identifying ballet aesthetics with femininity. In no other European theatrical practice were women so dominant onstage as in ballet or was the social status of the practice itself so compromised because of the visibility of women. Men were notable for their absence, except in certain highly prescribed "masculine" roles. Such roles were seldom classical ones, and they were rarely expressive.
With twenty-four men, The Rite of Spring was not the first injection of testosterone onto the twentieth-century French ballet stage. The Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor, performed on the very first Ballets Russes program in 1909, had already intoxicated audiences with the "fever and madness" of its choreography and the "savage exultation" of its warriors. Nijinsky, too, in ballets such as Schéhérazade and Le spectre de la rose, thrilled audiences, albeit as a new kind of male hero, the virtuoso androgyne. Mikhail Fokin (or Michel Fokine, as he styled himself in the West), whose works dominated the Ballets Russes repertory up to World War I, had already rejected many conventions of nineteenth-century Russian ballet — its multiact structure, codified pas de deux, jumble of dance styles, and mime. He took his women out of tutus, tights, and pointe shoes and dressed them in sandals, soft slippers, and tunics so that they became simultaneously antique, exotic, and icons of contemporary fashion. The body under the tunic, uncorseted for the first time in a hundred years, extended itself in space, arching and curving with a new expressive freedom. Fokine created the same liberating magic for men.
The Rite, in contrast, rejected both the West and the feminine as they were embodied in ballet. The Art Nouveau curve of Fokine's expressive body vanished in a geometry of line and angle, even as Nijinsky abandoned the technique of the danse d'école — the academic dance — in which he had been trained. Turnout was the foundation of that technique; it made possible the nineteenth-century acrobatic feats at which he excelled but that modernists decried. As a choreographer, however, Nijinsky rejected turnout. In L'après-midi d'un faune (1912), his first ballet, he conceived all the movement in parallel; in The Rite he explored the wide spread use of the turned-in, pigeon-toed position he adopted as the native stance of his pre-Slavonic tribe, just as turnout was that of the art identified with Russia's Westernized elite. Nijinsky also eliminated ballet's graceful, codified arm gestures and the French-named step vocabulary developed over two centuries, instead basing his movement on a highly stylized combination of folk and vernacular gestures, hardened and masculinized. His dancers stamped and shook, trembled and fell, rushed and fought, circled and killed. "By breaking up movement and bringing it back to the simple gesture," wrote Jacques Rivière in La nouvelle revue française, "Nijinsky caused expression to return to the dance." The virtuosity lay in the complex rhythms, the unfamiliar movement, the precision, stamina, and impersonal performance style called for by the choreography and the unconventional pathways that electrified the stage space — far from the neat symmetries of the nineteenth-century ballet stage or even the orgiastic dynamism of Fokine's works. No wonder a modern-dance choreographer such as Senta Driver could baldly assert in the introduction to a volume about William Forsythe that "the real founder of modern dance was Vaslav Nijinsky."
The idea of Nijinsky's Rite as exemplifying what later generations would call "modern" or "contemporary" dance (among other terms) has become a critical part of the ballet's "memory." The Rite was a ballet that dispensed with ballet technique. Even if the dancers carried that technique in their bodies as a result of their daily practice and the repertory they performed on a regular basis or even on the same program, as was the case of Nijinsky's dancers (at its premiere The Rite was preceded by Les sylphides, a Neoromantic reverie, and followed by Le spectre de la rose and The Polovtsian Dances), Nijinsky's choreography for The Rite obscured the danse d'école. This was also obscured to a degree by the character of the Diaghilev company itself. Most of Nijinsky's dancers were young, and few were seasoned performers. Only a minority was certifiably Russian, and of these only a handful had danced at the Imperial Theaters. They thus embodied a form of ballet practice that diverged sharply from what prevailed on the imperial stage. Of all the dancers who took part in The Rite of Spring, none, including Maria Piltz (who performed the role of the Chosen Maiden because Nijinska was pregnant), was a technical virtuoso in the conventional sense.
Excerpted from The Rite of Spring at 100 by Severine Neff, Maureen Carr, Gretchen Horlacher, John Reef. Copyright © 2017 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Audio-Visual Materials
Foreword: A Total Art-Work: Memorable Resonances and Reverberations in The Rite / Stephen Walsh
Note on Transliteration
Introductory Essay: Stravinsky’s Russia: The Politics of Cultural Ferment / Donald J. Raleigh
Part One: Dancing Le Sacre Across the Century
1. A Century of Rites: The Making of an Avant-Garde Tradition / Lynn Garafola
2. The Rite of Spring as a Dance: Recent Re-Visions / Stephanie Jordan
3. Re-Sourcing Nijinsky: The Rite of Spring and Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical / Gabriele Brandstetter
4. Death by Dancing in Nijinsky’s Rite / Millicent Hodson
Part Two: Le Sacre and Stravinsky in France
5. Le Sacre du Printemps: A Ballet for Paris / Annegret Fauser
6. Styling Le Sacre: The Rite’s Role in French Fashion / Mary E. Davis
7. The Rite of Spring, National Narratives, and Estrangement / Brigid Cohen
8. Formalizing a "Purely Acoustic" Musical Objectivity: Another Look at a 1915 Interview with Stravinsky / William Robin
9. Racism at The Rite / Tamara Levitz
Part Three: Observations on Le Sacre in Russia
10. Commentary and Observations on Le Sacre in Russia: An Overview / Kevin Bartig
11. Stravinsky, Roerich, and Old Slavic Rituals in The Rite of Spring / Tatiana Baranova Monighetti
12. Orchestral Sketches of Le Sacre du Printemps in the National Library of Russia / Natalia Braginskaya
13. Yuri Nikolaevich Kholopov: His Analytical Comments on The Rite of Spring / Grigory Lyzhov
14. Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 Triumph in the Soviet Union / Olga Manulkina
15. The Rite of Spring in Russia / Svetlana Savenko
16. "I Penetrated the Mystery of the Spring Lapidary Rhythms:" Baroque Topoi in The Rite of Spring / Elena Vereshchagina
17. "The Great Sacrifice:" Contextualizing the Dream / Tatiana Vereshchagina
18. An Interview with Composer Vladimir Tarnopolski / Edited and with an Introductory Note by Christy Keele and John Reef