On May 29, 1913, an excited audience, fashionably dressed according to poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau* in “tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys,”** waited for the curtain to rise at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe was premiering a new ballet with choreography by Nijinsky and music by Igor Stravinsky– The Rite of Spring.
The Ballet Russe was a breeding ground of early twentieth century modernism.*** Diaghilev produced work that was innovative, exciting, challenging. The music for Stravinsky’s two previous ballets, The Firebird and Petrouchka had been agreeably avant-garde, just enough to make the fashionable crowds who attended the ballet feel proud of their sophistication but not enough to be unenjoyable.
The Rite of Spring, subtitled Scenes of Pagan Russia, was a different pair of toe-shoes. When the curtain opened, the audience saw the dancers sitting in two circles in a wasteland scene dominated by massive stones. When the music began, the dancers moved: knees bent, toes turned in, stamping and stomping in a dance style that was the antithesis of classical ballet. The music and dance alike were dissonant, brutal, and self-consciously primitive, telling the “story” of a pagan rite in which a chosen victim dances herself to death as a sacrifice for the spring will come.
The fashionable audience hissed and booed, primitive in their own way. Soon the noise from the audience drowned out the orchestra. The dancers couldn’t hear the music on stage; Nijinsky shouted out the count from the wings to help them keep time. Artist Valentine Gross, whose sketches of the Ballet Russe were on display in the lobby, later wrote, “The theatre seemed to be shaken by an earthquake. It seemed to shudder. People shouted insults, howled and whistled…There was slapping and even punching.”
Maybe not a riot by soccer standards, but pretty shocking for a night at the ballet.
* Best known today for the film Beauty and the Beast (1946).
**Large artificial plumes, not large fish-eating birds of prey.
***Over the course of his career, Diaghilev would commission librettos by Cocteau, sets by Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, and music by Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky.