Paris 1913. The Mona Lisa was recovered two years after its theft from the Louvre, found in an Italian waiter’s hotel room in Florence, lace and fur evening wraps were in fashion, Tsar Nicholas II was celebrating the tercentenary of Romanov rule in Russia with suitable fanfare and two brand new, masterly designed, lavishly decorated Fabergé eggs: the Tercentenary Egg, a gift to the Tsarina, now part of the Kremlin Armoury collection in Moscow; and the Winter Egg, Fabergé’s finest creation, the most expensive egg ever commissioned, a gift from the Tsar to his mother, now property of a proud Quatari mogul.
It was late spring, the Balkan Wars were raging and the seeds leading to the Great War were growing strong, but that evening of 29 May, Igor Stravinsky was preparing for the premier of his new ballet and orchestral composition, opening at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, in Paris. It was written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky -with the assistance of Marie Rambert, the stage and costumes designed by Nicholas Roerich who apparently, was also instrumental in developing the concept of the pagan ritual of a woman that dances herself to death, sacrificed to the God of Spring. Maria Piltz was the leading dancer.
Le Sacre du Printemps – The Rite of Spring came to life, aptly subtitled ”Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”. As he took his place among the audience at the splendid auditorium, little did Stravinsky know that his work would go down in history as the ”most notorious stage scandal of the 20th century”.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a brand new theatre just two months old, was packed that night. The audience was a typical mix of Paris’ fashionable establishment and artistic bohemians that would rub shoulders at the foyer, but in reality, despised each other. They were all expecting to see a traditional ballet with ethereal, fragile movements and beautiful music.
What they saw was this:
A group of ”primitives” dressed in elaborately embroidered peasant tunics inspired by Slavic folklore tradition, entered the stage with abrupt, decisive steps, stamping and jumping, regrouping and changing formations, braids flying wildly everywhere, against a backdrop of painted rural landscape. Stunning. Colourful. No tutu. No tiara. No elegant grand jete and pirouette.
And what they heard was a strange, almost experimental music of such rhythmic energy, so different in tonality and metre, so very modern to a classically trained ear, it created a whirlwind of uproar right from the start when a bassoon played the first notes so high that it prompted composer Camille Saint-Saëns to famously exclaim: “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon!“
Whether the riot that followed was caused by the frantic music, the paganistic choreography or both, it is not clear. The fact is that the audience being such an odd mix didn’t need a lot of motivation to spring into ”action”: establishment/tradition vs unconventional/progressive; there was hissing, whistling and mocking so loud that the dancers could not hear the music on stage and had to count their steps aloud, Nijinsky was shouting step numbers but his voice was completely drowned in the general brouhaha and Stravinsky left the auditorium in disgust to watch the rest of the performance from backstage. The action-packed première was followed by five performances in Paris and four in London, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Then came the horror of the First World War and the misery, displacement and loss that followed. Nijinsky’s choreography sunk into oblivion; there was no one left to remember…
… Until one day, with the Great War behind them, Stravinsky and Diaghilev had the brilliant idea to revive the Rite; they probably thought that whoever managed to survive that inferno could very well digest a Rite revival… In December 1920 a new choreography, this time by Léonide Massine and leading dancer Lydia Sokolova, opened in Paris. Since then, the Rite has been performed in a number of adaptations, and now, exactly 100 years after that first scandalous, sensational performance, it is back. Choreographed by Sasha Waltz, supported by the Orchestra and Ballet of the Mariinsky of Saint Petersburg, this brand new version was presented on 29 May 2013 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, back to back with the original version.
I did not have the privilege to watch them live but am eternally grateful to ARTE LiveWeb for streaming the filmed version on line. You can still catch it here, until the end of November. Not surprisingly, the audience was well behaved during this historic soirée de gala, getting vocal just in time for the curtain call.
But, because twice is never enough, when Sasha Waltz & Guests performed ”Sacre” for the first time ever in Brussels, it was in my Sunday best and with great expectations that I took my front row sit on a red velvet chair in Brussels Opera House La Monnaie/De Munt.
The show started with ”Jagden und Formen (Zustand 2008)” to an energetic, unstoppable, manic music by Wolfgang Rihm. Its title translates as ”Hunts and Forms” which explains the abstract choreography precisely: formations of dancers in response to the music, of musicians to the dancers, of the ensemble to the audience. The musicians performed on stage becoming part of the ensemble, their instruments part of the formation.
And, finally, the moment I’d been waiting for: The Rite/Sacre, performed by the Sasha Waltz ensemble, for the very first time! Waltz’s undertaking was not a piece of cake. Having to work in the shadow of Pina Bausch‘s earlier version, tagged by the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as ”one of the most beautiful choreographic monuments of the second half of the twentieth century”, was surely demanding and stressful. But the Berlin choreographer, far from being deterred, produced a solid, complex, contemporary work, with clear references to Pina’s version – true, but without sacrificing her own aesthetic values. The result was a choreography with a classical core, organic and fluid, the erotic element subtly present, true to the ancient ritual of sacrifice of the individual for the common cause. Completely detached from the bucolic original Russian scene, placed as it was on a contemporary, minimal, timeless set.
A production that would have brought havoc in 1913, putting a smile on Ms Waltz’s face (and an envious grin to Mr Nijinsky’s), I’m sure!
Sacre next performance by Sasha Waltz & Guests is in January 2014, in Luxembourg.
La Monnaie/De Munt
Sunday, 15 September 2013
Images from Mariinsky, La Monnaie & Sasha Waltz websites.