By Linda Besant
On May 9, 1909, dancers who would come to be known as Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes gave their first performance at the Théatre du Chatelet in Paris. By the time the company dissolved upon Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the “Russian Ballet” had given work to Europe’s best dancers, choreographers, composers and artists, revitalized ballet throughout the Western world, and amassed an astonishing avant garde repertoire.
Diaghilev himself was an impresario. He created through others, bringing together artists of all disciplines to produce integrated, revolutionary works of art. “A list of his collaborators,” wrote Arnold Haskell, “reads like an index to the cultural history of the first three decades of the century.” The list encompasses composers such as Debussy, Prokofiev and Ravel; choreographers from Fokine to Nijinsky and Balanchine; and artists like Picasso, Matisse and Dali.
Le Sacre du Printemps, known in English as The Rite of Spring, was the landmark work of the Ballets Russes season in 1913. Composer Igor Stravinsky and Nicholas Roerich, the painter and amateur archeologist who designed the scenery, set forth an ancient tale of the ritual sacrifice of a chosen maiden to the spring gods of fertility.
Stravinsky had composed Firebird for Diaghilev in 1910, and Petrushka in 1911, but he broke all bounds with Le Sacre du Printemps. “I tried,” he said, to evoke “the mystery and surge of the creative power of spring . . . like the whole earth cracking.” Lydia Sokolova, who danced in the first production, wrote, “To express the dread, hope and frenzy of these brutish folk, Stravinsky made a music whose rhythms, trembling, pulsing, flickering, thudding and crashing with a maniac piston beat, registered their animal emotions.”
Diaghilev assigned Le Sacre du Printemps to his favored choreographer for the 1913 season, Vaslav Nijinsky, the 24-year-old classical dancer worshipped across the continent for his magnetic presence and sensational jumps. Nijinsky had created L’Apres-midi d’un faune, the scandalous success of the Ballets Russes 1912 season, a dreamlike and erotic meditation that bore no resemblance to classical ballet. With Sacre, Nijinsky ran even further from ballet’s balance and symmetry. “Really,” he said, “I begin to have horror of the very word ‘grace’; ‘grace’ and ‘charm’ make me feel seasick . . . my own inclinations are ‘Primitive’.
Here’s a clip from The Joffrey Ballet’s recreation of the original 1913 choreography:
As the video above shows, Nijinsky’s choreography was raw and weighted to the earth. “The dancers trembled, shook, shivered, stamped; jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khorovods,” wrote Lynn Garafola. It took 120 rehearsals for the dancers to encompass the utterly foreign demands of Nijinsky’s movement and Stravinsky’s polyrhythms. “The girls used to be running round with little bits of paper in their hands, in a panic, quarrelling with each other about whose count was right and whose wrong,” Sokolova remembered.
The public response to Le Sacre du Printemps “was exactly what I wanted,” Diaghilev told Stravinsky after the premiere on May 29, 1913—the audience at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées rioted. Valentine Gross, who was present that night, described the melee: “The theatre seemed to be shaken by an earthquake. It seemed to shudder. People shouted insults, howled and whistled, drowning the music. There was slapping and even punching.” Stravinsky escaped backstage, where Nijinsky was screaming counts wildly from the wings. Conductor Pierre Monteux continued the performance as if nothing were happening. Years later, Stravinsky wrote about Sacre, “A method is replaced; a tradition is carried forward to produce something new.”
Critical response at the time ranged from “epileptic fits, absurd dancing,” to “oddly impressive.” One paper defended the artists’ right to experiment. Looking back, historian Lynn Garafola wrote that in Sacre, Nijinsky showed “that ballet could generate styles of expression as powerfully imagined, deeply personal, and vitally contemporary as those of the other arts.” For the rest of its existence, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes continued to generate forward-thinking ballets, circling back to its roots in 1928 with George Balanchine’s newly classical Apollo.
Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du printemps was reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer in the 1980s for the Joffrey Ballet. Since 1913, choreographers across the spectrum of dance have created more than 60 interpretations of Stravinsky’s score, serving as a potent symbol of Diaghilev’s legacy.
Dancing for Diaghilev: The memoirs of Lydia Sokolova, ed. Richard Buckle. John
Murray Publishers, 1960. p. 42
Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Lynn Garafola. Oxford University Press, 1989. pgs. 68-75
International Dictionary of Ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps, Jody Leader. St. James Press, 1993. pgs 1231-1233
Nijinsky, Richard Buckle. Simon and Schuster, 1971. p. 300
Nijinsky: God of the Dance, Derek Parker. Equation, 1988. pgs 143-147