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About the Change

Plurality of Rites of Spring

Study day with Millicent Hodson

May 2002
London, Sadler's Wells

by Suzanne McCarthy

© Regina Will

'Rite of Spring' reviews

No other piece of music has inspired so many ballets as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and no other ballet has so chronicled the historical events that have pockmarked the 20th century. When you add the fascinating detective work used by Millicent Hodson to reconstruct Nijinsky's original 1913 ballet, you have the makings of an extraordinary study day; an opportunity for speaker and audience to explore together through this one work the impact the last century has had on dance and the impact dance has had on its audiences.

The story of what happened on that intensely hot night of 29th May 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees is well known. The premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps caused a riot. Introduced on the same programme as Prince Igor and Les Sylphides, the Parisian audience was wildly divided in its reaction to this revolutionary piece with its intense primordial rhythms and total abandonment of the romantic. Simply put, nothing like it had ever been seen on the European stage before. It was a complete reversal of the traditional ballet, where no dancer ever turned their back on the viewing public or placed their arms or legs out of line. Instead, the audience was forced to focus on, and engage in, a cosmological ritual carried out by, and within, a prehistoric, tribal world. Feet turned in, necks bent to become limbs as articulate as arms and legs, blunt, asymmetrical, sculptural movements (Stravinsky called the line of girls so positioned the "knock-kneed Lolitas"), and ballerinas falling flat on their faces - these were what shocked the audience that night (although when the ballet came later to London there was hardly a reaction). It bankrupted the theatre's owner.

The Ballet Preljocaj Rite of Spring
Photograph © Regina Will

Nijinsky's version of the Rite of Spring may have caused a theatrical earthquake, but it only had five performances in Paris and three in London. Unlike Afternoon of a Faun, it was not retained in the Ballets Russes' repertoire. Instead it became a subject of legend whose substance was only hinted at through fragments of drawings made by Valentine Gross-Hugo and a few black and white photographs. If there was a key to unlock the past it rested with Dame Marie Rambert who had been Nijinsky's assistant during the making of Le Sacre du Printemps. The person who was determined to use that key was Millicent Hodson, who, as a young postgraduate student in 1970 at the University of California, Berkeley, decided that she had to interview Dame Marie before it was too late. Using a variety of oral, written and visual evidence (much of the latter only fortuitously found in waste bins and at the bottom of clothes cupboards which is where a copy of the Rambert annotated score was discovered after her death in 1982), Hodson slowly and painstakingly with her husband, the art historian, Kenneth Archer, brought the ballet together over 15 years. It was vividly reborn in 1987 at a performance by the Joffrey Ballet.

To some the concept of a "reconstructed ballet" is tainted. Dance, the most ephemeral of the visual arts, seems incapable of recreation. Every performance is essentially a variation on a theme, with the work always evolving as it reflects the physicality and musicality of different dancers and companies. This is the epistemological problem of the art form. Hodson recognises this, and boldly answers those her criticise her work. She agrees that what the Joffrey Ballet performed was not Nijinsky's pristine ballet. A complete exhumation was impossible. Some things were lost. Other elements only regained once the work was seen again, such as the realisation that the women in the second act push the chosen one into the centre of their circle rather than the dancer whirling herself into that position. "Lost", Hodgson observed, is a relative term. What she was able to do, before everything vanished, was to consolidate those disjointed parts of the puzzle that were still in existence and place them into a synthesized whole. If the Joffrey production was 85% Nijinsky and 15% her contribution, then she is satisfied.

Using a mixture of slides and video footage, Hodgson presented the lost masterpiece and unfolded the events of her quest. In doing so she examined the various elements that together resulted in Nijinsky's work. The start was Nicholas Roerich, the painter and archaeologist, who designed the décor and costumes for Le Sacre. Stravinsky and he created a work of another time and place - the northern Slavic steppes in early Spring. (The original titles of the work were the "Crowning of Spring" or "The Coronation of Spring". It was only immediately before the opening that "The Rite of Spring" became the ballet's title.) The costumes were heavy smocks, hand-painted with meaningful symbols of circles and squares. These in turn influenced Nijinsky who did not begin to create the floor patterns of the dance until he had seen the designs. He had the dancers' assemblages and movements mirror the motifs, with their bodies twisting, turning and jumping simultaneously collectively and individually, thereby mimicking the complicated, multi-storied, pulsating rhythms of the music.

Often the dance of the Chosen One, the central heart of the piece, flows out from what the group is doing, as was the case, according to Youri Van Den Bosch, Preljocaj's assistant, with the development of his version recently performed at Sadler's Wells. That solo only emerged two days before that work's premiere at the Berlin State Opera. It was the reverse with Nijinsky. At the age of 23, he formulated the ballet company's basic movements while creating the Chosen One's solo using his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, as if she were a block of wood or stone and he the sculptor. (It is possible that she wrote so much about the ballet afterwards because her pregnancy the following year prevented her from actually dancing the role.) In other ways the choreography reflected his physicality - the long neck and strong thighs. His ballet requires great power being concentrated in the lower body as dancers continually push themselves away from the earth's gravity.

Nijinsky's Sacre was meant to symbolise an ordeal, and this literally was the case for the 47 dancers who took part. Their resistance to the work was notable and outspoken to the point of revolt. Later, the dancers were grateful for Massine's less demanding Sacre II, a restaging paid for by Coco Chanel. That version demoted the ritual life of the community, the heart of Nijinsky's work. Instead it emphasised the dependencies and social interactions of existence. Reflecting on that performance, the critics belatedly realised the innovative nature and modernity of the original work.

The 1913 ballet divides its participants into two parts, like the moiety of a tribe, and the ballet itself is divided into two acts. Act I, composed of seven scenes, takes place during the day, Act II, having five scenes, unfolds the evening's ritual. Scene 1 is entitled, Augers of Spring/Dance of the Maidens, and opens with the adoration of the earth. Standing downstage is the 300 year old woman, bent over with arthritis and gripping divination twigs. She heralds the shamanistic elements that run through the piece, and triggers the action by leading a path through five separate groups on stage. This scene leads to the Ritual of Abduction. Here Nijinsky unceremoniously discarded any pretence of a formal pas de deux. In fact there is no real partnering. The scene did, however, draw on the Apache Dance, a fast, racy and brutally erotic routine that was all the rage in revues and music halls of the time.

This is followed by the Spring Rounds where three tall women, known as the "Storks", enter on three quarter point and pick their way across the stage along the diagonal. The Ritual of the Rival Tribes is next, and commences with fighting movements leading into competitive dancing. That scene ends abruptly with the Procession of the Sage who is accompanied by the tribal Elders. In contrast to the activity of the previous scene, the Sage and Elders proceed forward on a diagonal line walking in slow motion while the rest of the dancers are still. In the next scene, Adoration of the Earth/The Sage, he is lowered to the ground for the ceremonial kissing of the Earth. This is the moment where he acts as the conduit through which the energy of the sun travels. In Act 1's last scene, Dance of the Earth, the audience is visually hit with over 40 distinctive solos being performed on stage. Eventually the individual forces are combined together, and the curtain falls with the tribe pressing together around the Sage in the centre.

Act II opens with the Mystic Circles of the Maidens. The Maidens dance a game of chance in which one maiden falls not once but twice identifying her as the Chosen One. The others push her into the centre of their circle. Having been recognised, the second scene is the Glorification of the Chosen One with its female marital Dance of the Amazons, contrasting sharply with the labyrinthine structure of the previous scene. Their actions are aimed at frightening the Chosen One and to prepare her for the ordeal she must face. The third scene, Evocation of the Ancestors, sees the maidens repeatedly falling flat on stage. The penultimate scene, Ritual Action of the Ancestors, announces the arrival of 20 Ancestors wearing bearskins. They together with the maidens form circles around the Chosen One performing a limping dance. This is the moment for the maidens to leave as only men can watch the Chosen One's sacrificial dance. The women's final contortions are symbolic expressions of their grief for the Chosen One's fate. Finally, the ballet reaches its climax in the Sacrificial Dance beginning with a convulsive jump and then continues as Hodgson describes with "compact jumps; inverted postures; head and arms held in contorted positions as the body moves beneath them to irregular rhythms; ordealistic repetition; and the demonstration of effort, rather than concealment of it which is characteristic of classical ballet". The Ancestors begin a processional movement around the Chosen One, allowing the audience only fleeting glimpses of the main character. By this technique, adopted by numerous filmmakers, the audience cannot help but be drawn into the proceedings. Eventually, following eight ecstatic jumps, the Chosen One falls to the ground, makes a last effort to rise, only to fall again whereupon she is lifted into the air by the Ancestors to the red rays of the sun as she takes her last breath and dies as the music ends.

There have been almost 130 versions of Le Sacre since Nijinsky's primordial one. These have been delivered with striking differences. Massine's 1920 version emphasised social relationships. Lestor Horton's was danced in 1937 in the open air at the Hollywood Bowl. Following World War II several choreographers used the Rite of Spring to emphasise the sanctity of ordinary life or the healing vision of one world. Bejart's 1959 version heralded a definitive change with its stress on sexual duality. In his ballet the sexual act becomes the sacrifice. In 1962, with the Cold War raging and ecological concerns emerging, Kenneth MacMillan presented his interpretation. While Monica Mason danced the Chosen One in his piece, later, and for the first time, a male dancer, Wayne Eagling, also performed that role. Dressed in flesh coloured tights with hands painted on them not dissimilar to the decorations found on cave walls intermixed with prehistoric paintings, the dance was performed to a backdrop of a large sun resembling a nuclear mushroom cloud.

During the 60s and 70s numerous versions emerged with various young bloods seeing the ballet as a rite of passage for themselves. John Neumeier, for example, found his inspiration in the killings at Kent State University during the period of the anti-Vietnam war protests. In his ironic account, presented as a crime story with a kidnapped child at its core, the only one to survive is the Chosen One, the child's mother. In 1975 Pina Bausch presented her version. Bausch's ballet, performed partially nude and on a stage covered with earth, returned the ballet to its primitive ritualistic undercurrent. And there have been others, such as Molissa Fenley's solo version where her individuality on stage results in her choosing and also concurrently being the Chosen One. Preljocaj's staging of the piece in 2001, as Youri Van Den Bosch explained, resulted from an invitation from Daniel Barenboim, who wanted the work performed rather than being given as a concert piece.

The day ended with the inevitable question. Why have there been so many works inspired by this piece of music? Maybe the answer lies in its immediacy as it taps into the innate and primal sounds of our ancestors.

Those who attended the day were unanimous in their praise for Millicent Hodson who, through her clarity of thought and exposition, took each of us step by step through The Rite of Spring and her own search for the original text. Her book, Nijinsky's Crime Against Grace, published by Pendragon Press (1996) tells the full story. Thanks also goes to Sheila Dickie, of Sadler's Wells, who organised the day. Anyone who would like to attend future study days at Sadler's Wells should contact her.

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