Today marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Stravinsky’s monumental ballet Le Sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”). Inspired by traditional songs and dances of tribal Russia, the work depicts an ancient sacrificial ritual in which a maiden is selected to dance herself to death in honor of the changing seasons. The original production combined Stravinsky’s pounding rhythms and sensuous melodies with visceral choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky.
As legend goes, during the premiere performance on May 29, 1913, the audience at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was so scandalized by the ballet’s jarring timbres and jumpy dance movements that a riot broke out, overcoming the entire auditorium. Though it’s still unclear if the Rite riot was orchestrated by the ballet’s producers to generate buzz or if the chaos truly arose spontaneously, the work’s storied debut remains one of the great moments in classical music history.
A hundred years later, the searing musical energy and sheer orchestral power of Stravinsky’s work continues to enthrall musicians, dancers, and audience members alike. I first experienced the Rite as a music student at the University of Washington, where I watched the Joffrey Ballet’s 1989 re-creation of Nijinsky’s original choreography in a music history class. I became obsessed with the piece, combing through YouTube in an attempt to watch every single performance and choreography I could find. Years later, The Rite of Spring remains one of my favorite musical works of all time.
In honor of today’s Rite centennial, I’ve compiled a collection of my favorite recordings, choreographies, and related media. Happy 100th birthday, Rite of Spring!
Recording: Seiji Ozawa with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1968. A young Ozawa highlights the rhythmic intensity and violence of Stravinsky’s work. CSO’s brass section lives up to its legendary reputation, delivering a white-hot performance that will melt your ears off.
Arrangement: Jon Kimura Parker’s arrangement for solo piano, 2013. Although Stravinsky wrote and published a two-piano arrangement of The Rite of Spring, Parker takes it further with his solo arrangement, which captures every gesture of the full orchestral version. In a recital in Seattle earlier this month, Parker played the entire work from memory in a performance that swept the audience up in a whirlwind of intense physicality and smoldering sound. You could almost hear jaws hitting the floor.
Arrangement: Darryl Brenzel’s The Rewrite of Spring, 2012. In this quirky performance, Brenzel re-envisions Stravinsky’s ballet in the trappings of big band jazz. There’s something strangely appealing about hearing a chorus of saxophones honking away at those famous throbbing rhythms that kick off the piece.
Choreography: Joffrey Ballet’s re-creation of Nijinsky’s original choreography, 1989. After the premiere performances in 1913, many details of the original Rite of Spring production were forgotten or lost. All that remained were a collection of notes and sketches. In the late 1980’s, choreographer Millicent Hodson and historian Kenneth Archer pieced together a reconstruction of the original ballet, gleaned through extensive archival research and interviews with surviving dancers. Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Hodson and Archer’s re-imagined Rite — complete with detailed reproductions of the original costumes and sets — will raise your eyebrows with its wackiness and lend insight into why the crowd was so scandalized on that fateful day in 1913.
Choreography: Pina Bausch and Wuppertal Opera Ballet, 1975. Bausch’s visceral choreography brings the Rite’s primitive, ritualistic themes into the postmodern age, resulting in a production that shocks contemporary audiences just as the premiere astounded viewers in 1913. Dancers clad in simple cloth shifts scrape and scrabble in the dirt, throwing themselves to the ground and flailing their limbs violently. In keeping with the times, Bausch laces her version with not-so-subtle messages about gender, turning the ballet’s ritual sacrifice into something more than just a pagan offering to the arrival of spring. The finale still sends chills down my spine.
Choreography: Théâter Equestre Zingaro and Pierre Boulez with Orchestre de Paris, 2000. Eminent conductor and composer Pierre Boulez is joined by a troupe of horses and their acrobat riders in this bizarre yet riveting production of Stravinsky’s Rite.
For Fun: “The Rite of Spring Workout”, 2012. Composer and I Care if You Listen editor Thomas Deneuville created this YouTube masterpiece, which hilariously blends the Rite‘s famous opening with footage from the workout scene in the 1985 film Perfect.