B2 High-Intermediate US 110 Folder Collection
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We typically think of ballet as harmonious, graceful and polished–
hardly features that would trigger a riot.
But at the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring,"
audience members were so outraged that they drowned out the orchestra.
Accounts of the event include people hurling objects at the stage,
challenging each other to fights, and getting arrested–
all on what started as a sophisticated night at the ballet.
First performed in May 1913
at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris,
"The Rite of Spring" is set in prehistoric times.
The narrative follows an ancient Pagan community
worshipping the Earth and preparing for the sacrifice of a woman
intended to bring about the change of seasons.
But the ballet is much more concerned with the violent relationship
between humans, nature, and culture
than with character or plot.
These themes manifest in a truly upsetting production
which combines harsh music, jerky dancing, and uncanny staging.
It opens with dancers awakening to a solo bassoon,
playing in an eerily high register.
This gives way to discordant strings, punctured by unexpected pauses
while the dancers twitch to the music.
These frightening figures enact the ballet's brutal premise,
which set audiences on edge
and shattered the conventions of classical music.
In these ways and many more,
"The Rite of Spring" challenged the orchestral traditions
of the 19th century.
Composed on the cusp of both the first World War
and the Russian revolution,
"The Rite of Spring" seethes with urgency.
This tension is reflected in various formal experiments,
including innovative uses of syncopation, or irregular rhythm;
atonality or the lack of a single key,
and the presence of multiple time signatures.
Alongside these strikingly modern features,
Stravinsky spliced in aspects of Russian folk music–
a combination that deliberately disrupted
the expectations of his sophisticated, urban audience.
This wasn't Stravinsky's first use of folk music.
Born in a small town outside of St. Petersburg in 1882,
Stravinsky's reputation was cemented with the lush ballet "The Firebird."
Based on a Russian fairytale,
this production was steeped in Stravinsky's fascination
with folk culture.
But he plotted a wilder project in "The Rite of Spring,"
pushing folk and musical boundaries to draw out the rawness of pagan ritual.
Stravinsky brought this reverie to life
in collaboration with artist Nicholas Roerich.
Roerich was obsessed with prehistoric times.
He had published essays about human sacrifice
and worked on excavations of Slavic tombs
in addition to set and costume design.
For "The Rite of Spring," he drew from Russian medieval art
and peasant garments to create costumes that hung awkwardly
on the dancers' bodies.
Roerich set them against vivid backdrops of primeval nature;
full of jagged rocks, looming trees and nightmarish colors.
Along with its dazzling sets and searing score,
the original choreography for "The Rite of Spring"
was highly provocative.
This was the doing of legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky,
who developed dances to rethink “the roots of movement itself.”
Although Stravinsky later expressed frustration
with Nijinsky's demanding rehearsals
and single-minded interpretations of the music,
his choreography proved as pioneering as Stravinsky's composition.
He contorted traditional ballet–
to both the awe and horror of his audience,
many of whom expected the refinement and romance of the genre.
The dancing in "The Rite of Spring" is agitated and uneven,
with performers cowering, writhing and leaping about as if possessed.
Often, the dancers are not one with the music
but rather seem to struggle against it.
Nijinsky instructed them to turn their toes inwards
and land heavily after jumps, often off the beat.
For the final, frenzied scene,
a woman dances herself to death to loud bangs and jarring strings.
The ballet ends abruptly on a harsh, haunting chord.
Today, "The Rite of Spring"
remains as chilling as its controversial debut,
but the shockwaves of the original work continue to resound and inspire.
You can hear Stravinsky's influence in modern jazz's dueling rhythms,
folky classical music, and even film scores for horror movies,
which still illicit a riotous audience response.
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The ballet that incited a riot - Iseult Gillespie

110 Folder Collection
ally.chang published on February 27, 2020
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