“The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.”
— Igor Stravinsky
I’m sure it’s a hipster affectation of mine: I try to listen to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring every year when the Spring Equinox comes around. It’s a hipster affectation because I don’t really know much about classical music, and I can’t deny that what thrills me most about this music is not the work itself but the knowledge that it caused a riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when it was first performed. A riot in an theatre — that’s my idea of a rite of Spring.
The music sounds primal today, though it’s hard to imagine how it could have caused a riot. In fact, it was not the music as much as the ballet, daringly choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, that caused the sensation. Le Sacre du Printemps was a Russian debut in France, and as such a symbolic meeting between two nations that would one year later go to war together against Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey.
While I’ve heard the music often, I’ve never seen the work performed, and I’ve only just become aware of a Joffrey Ballet video that presents Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s ballet in context — Pictures of Pagan Russia is the subtitle — so that we can get a better idea of what the whole sensation was about. Here’s the first of three parts; you can click through from this one to the next two.
The specific rite of spring that these crazy-dressed people are dancing so hard about is a human sacrifice — specifically, the sacrifice of a young virgin girl. Like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Sacre du Printemps is a work that challenges us to consider our own primitive and superstitious collective past … though the sociological message is also not what sparked the theater riot in Paris, any more than the music sparked the riot. Contemporary accounts suggest that the audience was just put off by all the stomping on stage.
Enjoy this video of Le Sacre, if you wish … and may you celebrate your own unique rites of Spring, whatever they may be, today.