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The Rite of Spring: An introduction...

The Rite of Spring is arguably the most influential piece of music of the 20th Century, and we are excited for our 2019 production in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre to be streamed via OperaVision on 23 July 2021!

Find out more about Stravinsky, the work’s infamous premiere and this unique interpretation below…

Watch via OperaVision

How did it come about?

The Rite of Spring was written by Igor Stravinsky, who was quite young at the time, and relatively unknown. He had been talent-spotted by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris, and had already composed two ballet scores for Diaghilev’s own company ‘Ballet Russes’ — The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911).

The third commission – The Rite of Spring (subtitled ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia’) – was quite a departure from what had come before. Stravinsky describes how the concept came to him:

“I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.”

He then approached a painter named Nicholas Roerich, who specialised in pagan subjects, and the two worked together to create the scenario – two parts, broken into a series of episodes, which depict various rituals. Star dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was appointed choreographer, even though his last work had caused some controversy.

Igor Stravinsky c. 1920-1930

Did the premiere really cause a riot?

The Rite of Spring’s 1913 premiere in Paris has gone down in history as one of the greatest theatrical furores of the 20th Century. In his 1936 autobiography, Stravinsky recalls that “derisive laughter” began after only the first few bars, and that things quickly escalated to a “terrific uproar”.

Whether it was the radical music, or Nijinsky’s angular and grounded (rather than air-borne) choreography – or both – which offended the audience’s idea of what ballet should be, is unclear. In any case, Stravinsky left his seat to watch from the wings, where Nijinsky was standing on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, who could no longer hear above the mayhem in the auditorium. Meanwhile Diaghilev apparently kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise!

Dancers of the Ballet Russes in The Rite of Spring, in Nicholas Roerich's original costumes, 1913

Why was the score so revolutionary?

When The Rite of Spring premiered, audiences had never heard anything like it — in rhythm, stress and tonality, it was groundbreaking. Stravinsky wrote:

“Very little immediate tradition lies behind The Rite of Spring – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.”

This threw up more than a few problems at the time. Stravinsky found it difficult to notate music of such rhythmic complexity and express on paper what he meant, and the original orchestral musicians had to be asked to stop interrupting in rehearsals when they thought they had found mistakes!

To our ear today, it STILL sounds radical – it is an eternally modern score. The piece opens with a bassoon melody played in a high register (making the instrument hard to identify at first), which sounds otherworldly and disturbing. This is followed by the first dance, which is characterised by a repeated, stamping chord, where the accented beat constantly shifts. The final ‘sacrificial dance’ (hear it below) is heavily percussive. Our conductor Garry Walker says:

“The rhythms of The Rite of Spring are so elemental. At the end, you just have to dance to it – it’s almost hypnotic.”

What is this choreography like?

Our Rite of Spring, in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre, is choreographed by Haitian-born Jeanguy Saintus. Jeanguy has approached the work through his own cultural roots, and the eight company dancers have been exploring Haitian vodou, with its spirits and rituals:

“I told myself, instead of sacrificing a girl or a woman, why don’t we think of the ritual as call and response, and a give and take between the realm of humans and the ‘Invisibles’ (intermediary spirits between the Supreme Creator and the world in Haitian vodou)? Why don’t we make a ‘promise’ as an offering?”

Each of these spirits has a distinctive character and personality, and the audience will get to know and recognise them through the choreography. The idea of a central circle, which is important in Haitian vodou is also prominent.

Read more about Jeanguy’s approach to The Rite of Spring »

Vanessa Vince-Pang rehearsing The Rite of Spring by Phoenix Dance Theatre, choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus © Jack Thomson

What are the costumes like?

Designer Yann Seabra’s costumes for our Rite of Spring are incredibly colourful – with different colours representing the different spirits. Male and female dancers initially wear the same, but these costumes are added to throughout the piece, with flowing skirts.

Most strikingly of all, the dancers each wear gloves matching their own skin tone, which have then been dipped in dye, giving the illusion of painted hands.

Aaron Chaplin, Vanessa Vince-Pang and Carlos J. Martinez in Phoenix Dance Theatre and Opera North’s The Rite of Spring choreographed by Jeanguy Saintus © Tristram Kenton


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