I took a ballet class in high school and one day our teacher showed us a video that changed how I viewed dance. It was a piece called The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and music written by Igor Stravinsky. The video is the Joffrey Ballet performing in 1989, after the piece was revived. It was originally performed in 1913 in Paris.
This piece is far from beautiful. Even after seeing it several times, it is hard to get past my initial disgust. It is a far cry from Swan Lake. The piece depicts a Russian tribe and the daily tasks. The men and women wear the same outfits-long, ill-fitting dresses, and laced up boots. Some dancers have dramatic face makeup on. There are no perfect lines like in a traditional ballet-here the dancers are pigeon-toed, with curved backs and bent legs. The movements are repetitive, usually the group jumping up and down or stomping their feet. Later, more brightly colored clothing comes in, but the movements are still repetitive as the group moves together. When they jump, their knees come together while their feet go apart, and they land flat-footed. A featured dancer is an old woman, and her back is constantly hunched and she hops around the stage. While the movements are ugly, it is easy to see that these movements and positions are very challenging.
But the more you watch the video, it is easier to see past the unfamiliar movements and see the skill. They all move in groups, and staying that in sync is very difficult. All of their ballet skills are still present-their jumps are graceful even when they are ugly, and they are able to do stiff and discontinuous movements with ease.
When this piece was first shown, it was only performed eight times before it was shut down. At the premier, people were outraged. They hated the movement and music, and they felt that they were being mocked. Many people yelled and screamed, threw things at the dancers, and left. After eight performances, the piece was closed by force. 1989 was the first time anyone attempted to perform it again. This clip here is a movie that includes the dance and the reaction, called The Riot at the Rite (They start showing the reactions around 6:40). I have never seen this movie, but I like how it shows how people reacted. It also features the dancer’s reaction to the outrage.
The film Riot at the Rite
- How would you feel if you expected to see a traditional ballet piece and you saw this? How would you react?
- How can people appreciate this piece now?
- The dance, after the premier, was not seen again for decades. However, the music composed by Stravinsky is considered an influential piece of the 20th century, and it is still appreciated today. Why do you think the music was better received than the dance?