not in our stars, but in ourselves
As ever, I am the soul of generosity with you wretched sinners: above, you will find the full hour and a half of the BBC production Riot at the Rite (2005), a thoroughly fascinating (if perhaps rather exaggerated and caricaturized) biopic of sorts about the premiere of the Ballets Russes’ Rite of Spring in 1913. While the titular riot may not have happened with quite as many fisticuffs as depicted in the film version, it is entirely true that Igor Stravinsky’s music and Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography caused a huge uproar among the usual ballet-going crowd. No one had ever seen anything like this before.
The Ballets Russes began performing in Paris in 1909, and they were the toast of the city and of Europe. They presented a vision of exoticized Russia, a vision that audiences clamored to see. However modern and European Russia wanted to imagine itself to be (from Peter the Great through the last batch of Romanovs), the rest of the continent saw it as a strange and mysterious place. Impresario Serge Diaghilev, therefore, gave Parisians what they wanted to see: a mythologized, enchanting, unearthly Russia. Diaghilev commissioned works based on Russian folktales, like The Firebird, and deliberately emphasized the Russianness of his dancers, composers, choreographers, designers – every person in the company.
In 1913, the Ballets Russes were a massive success. Stravinsky, however, had a dream: pre-Christian Russia, a brutal and unforgiving landscape, a desperate rite to ensure the earth’s bounty that spring, a human sacrifice. The music he devised to accompany this pagan fantasia was unlike anything anyone had heard. Harsh, pounding, crashing, atonal – seeming, indeed, to presage the utter horror of World War I a year later. Rather than relying on Michel Fokine, who had choreographed some of the Ballets Russes’ greatest successes (Le Pavilion d’Armide, Le Spectre de la Rose, The Firebird), Diaghilev opted to let Nijinsky choreograph. In both this BBC production and in the much older Nijinsky (1980), the sexual relationship between the two is heavily emphasized, and perhaps it was for this reason – sleeping with the director – that Nijinsky got the job. Perhaps it was because Diaghilev was thrilled by the sensation caused by Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune in 1912, and was hoping for a repeat of that controversy/success.
He certainly got the former. As presented in Riot at the Rite, audience members – mostly fashionable members of the smart set who didn’t give much thought to the arts, but who just went along for the ride, expecting a lovely evening and little else – were utterly shocked by what they saw and heard. For the latter, listen to the shimmering, rapturous finale of The Firebird; and compare it to the strange, un-beautiful opening of The Rite of Spring. For the former, compare any ballet you know off the top of your head – Swan Lake, for instance, with its tragic and gorgeous swans – to the jagged, heavy bodies of The Rite. The BBC production above includes a line about ballet often being a case of the soul transcending the body, but this ballet being a case of the soul trapped in the body. The effect is jarring, even 100 years later.
Anyway, I do promise to return to posting more about real movies soon, but you all don’t mind a bit of culture now and then, right? Right.