Monday, 9 November 2009

Rite of Spring ballet and design

At the ENO, there's a new ballet of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (read about it in The Times)
Stravinsky's music was revolutionary in 1913, and so was Nijinsky's choreography. It almost caused a riot, as innovation often does. Everything about it seemed "wrong", heresy against all that was sacred in music, dance and design.

Only seven performances were held. The following year the First World War broke out, then the Russian Revolution. Even now the music seems shockingly alien and uncompromising.

Nijinsky's ballet became a tantalizing legend. He changed the whole idea of ballet, just as Stravinsky changed music. Without Nijinsky, we wouldn't have modern dance, from Martha Graham to Pina Bausch and whoever else.

In the 1980's the dance historian Millicent Hodson began a reconstruction based on the drawings and on notes written by dancers who'd seen the original. The reconstruction was performed by the Joffrey Ballet, and filmed. Look how the intricate layers in the music translate into small, semi-independent units in dance. The clip comes from a much later Mariinsky version of the reconstruction (much tighter dancing I think) in St Petersburg. Some of the shots are taken from above, so you can see how the choreography works from different angles. Unfortunately I can't post a clip of the principal dancer doing her solo. She's larger than life, towering above the others (as indicated in the Roerich sketch above). At first she seems as stiff and wooden as an effigy, then she breaks out in the wildest, most athletic dance. Her limbs jut madly, like she's a puppet jerked into motion by some bizarre electricity. Petroushka on speed.

Although Nicholas Roerich's costume and set designs look beautifully "Russian", it's probably arguable that primitive animists didn't do elaborate embroidery. But it would have been way too much for audiences in 1913 to imagine prehistoric barbarians, since they were used to pretty ballet, swathed in tulle and roses. After all, it hadn't been all that much earlier that Darwin's ideas on evolution horrified the civilized world. A hundred years after Le Sacre, we can cope with its disturbing portents. Or can we?

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