The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps, 1913) is widely regarded as Nijinsky’s most important work. It was the only one of his four choreographies to fit the Orientalist narrative of the revolutionary Russian barbarians of the Ballets Russes. In comparison, Nijinsky’s first choreography, Afternoon of a Faun (L’Après-midi d’un Faune, 1912) to music by Claude Debussy, was an experimental piece: how was it possible to dance on a stage deliberately reduced in depth to only two metres? With a score composed by a famous French composer as the overture to a text by a celebrated French poet, Nijinsky’s ‘Cubism’ led nationalist Parisian critics to accuse the work of being unnatural, indecent and an affront to French taste and decency. As an exploration of the conventions of the stage, however, Afternoon of a Faun is a much more interesting work than The Rite of Spring.
Commissioning entirely new music from Debussy did not save Nijinsky’s second choreography from similar accusations. Games (Jeux,1913), which premiered two weeks before The Rite of Spring, was condemned as ugly in its movement language; its white sportswear was seen as boring and its characters’ behaviour obscene. The work had barely any plot and none of the exoticism associated with the Russians. Set in the near future, it illustrated a ménage-à-trois between a young man and two young women amidst a tennis game in the backyard of a city house. However, Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava Nijinska, who developed neoclassical ballet alongside George Balanchine in the 1920s, noted that Games influenced her most as a choreographer – Nijinska’s The Blue Train (Le Train Bleu, 1924) and The Does (Les Biches,1924) both contained references to this choreography. By referring to a sport in an urban environment familiar to the audience, Games sought to bring modern human movement into ballet’s technique.
These earlier choreographies by Nijinsky caused the audience of The Rite of Spring to expect something extraordinarily novel. Some critics were ready to attack the work, whatever it might be. The 45-minute tale of pagan Russia, divided into two acts and ending with the sacrifice of a young woman, had no main character apart from the Chosen Maiden in the second act. The manner the work conveyed the narrative elements described in the libretto, the monotony of its aesthetically ‘wrong’ movements, and the emphasis on rhythm were particularly perplexing to French audiences, who did not recognise the carefully designed references to how Russians had previously illustrated their country’s prehistory. For Russian critics, the choreography’s references to Russian crafts, icon painting and prehistory demonstrated the choreographer’s commitment to promoting national art in the context of contemporary art. In Russia, the hostility of the audiences at the premiere was generally seen as proof of the vanguard nature of the work and of Russian art being in advance of the rest of Europe.
The enthusiasm Russian critics showed for Nijinsky’s choreographies was rather embarrassing for Diaghilev and those close to him. For years they had portrayed Russia as a conservative backwater in order to ignore Russian critics’ scathing opinions about the Ballets Russes. From the Russian point of view, there was nothing new about Diaghilev’s troupe. The company’s advertising campaigns, the orientalist plots of works revolving around sex and violence, and the excessive focus on virtuoso tricks at the expense of dance expression were all seen as mere entertainment, not art. Moreover, Russian dance critics were irritated by the way that French critical opinion focused on the music and the scenography, and saw the success of the Diaghilev company as due to an audience lacking in expertise on dancing.
Nijinsky was exceptionally meticulous about the details of his choreographies, especially the relationship between dance and music. In The Rite of Spring, he demanded that the dancers do everything contrary to what they had learned. The choreography grouped the dancers asymmetrically around the stage, and the monotonous sequences of everyday movements and jumps that landed with a thump were not to the dancers’ liking. Although the performances of The Rite of Spring were sold out and the work received exceptional attention, the conservative financiers of the Ballets Russes did not agree with Nijinsky’s vision. In the summer of 1913, Nijinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev was strained to breaking point. Contrary to what histories usually claim, the Russian press saw this rift as inevitable long before the company’s South American tour and Nijinsky’s surprising marriage to the Hungarian amateur dancer Romola de Pulszky. Originally, Diaghilev dropped all of Nijinsky’s choreographies from the repertoire of the troupe. He had to swallow his considerable pride in 1916 when the First World War forced the company to tour North America, and one of the conditions of this contract was introducing the most famous male dancer of his time, Nijinsky, to American audiences. When the management of the tour signed Nijinsky as the company’s director for the autumn of 1916, Diaghilev returned to Europe willing to convince all who would hear of Nijinsky’s treachery that Americans lacked all understanding of art. As a result, Nijinsky’s Till Eulenspiegel, inspired by German expressionist art and choreographedto the music of Richard Strauss, remained a one-season wonder. When Nijinsky was committed to an asylum in 1919, his personal tragedy was turned into a feature of his earlier choreographic work, now anachronistically seen as evidence of his mental illness.
The subsequent reputation of The Rite of Spring was greatly affected by the racist assumptions about Russians in the original French reception and the resentment Diaghilev’s coterie harboured towards Nijinsky’s choreography. After the First World War, the seemingly senseless sacrifice of a young woman became a metaphor for the senseless sacrifice of so many young people in the war. For example, in The Cock and the Harlequin (1918), Jean Cocteau drew a parallel between the horrors of soldiers at the front, The Rite of Springand modernist art more generally. The choreography also became a testament to the ‘revolutionary’ nature of Diaghilev’s troupe, and many critics who had derided the work after the premiere later represented themselves as proponents of its modernism. The legend of the riot at the premiere grew and became praise for Stravinsky’s score, now performed as concert music. Yet, contemporary sources attest it was clearly Nijinsky’s choreography, not Stravinsky’s music, that evoked the ire of French critics.
The rift between Diaghilev and Nijinsky paved the way for the silencing of Russian critics in everything written about the Ballets Russes, but especially in the interpretation of The Rite of Spring. The importance of The Rite of Springin art dance has rested on legends about the riotous premiere and about Nijinsky. As Stravinsky’s composition became the cornerstone of modernist concert music, hundreds of new choreographies have been set to The Rite of Spring, and endless analyses offered of this workand its relationship to the composer’s vast œuvre. It is telling that the most insightful assessment of this Russian work is considered to be an openly racist text by the French critic Jacques Rivière, published in La Nouvelle revue française in August and November 1913. In this review, Rivière defines The Rite of Springas an expression of the racial otherness of the Russians, incomprehensible to the civilised French. In 1987, when Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer produced their ‘reconstruction’ for the Joffrey Ballet, they claimed on rather flimsy grounds that they had recreated ‘Nijinsky’s original choreography.’ This has further distorted the legacy of the 1913 choreography and confused the work’s significance in debates about the possibilities of dance. Hodson’s choreography has become the ‘new original,’ quite uncritically referenced as Nijinsky’s choreography.
In reading reviews from 1913 it is striking how The Rite of Spring impressed even critics who saw its simple, repetitive movements and bodies shaking in place and moving asymmetrically as the antithesis of dance. As with Nijinsky’s other choreographies, The Rite of Spring was seen as both too slavishly bound to the music and, at the same time, as going against it. In the reviews, critics disagreed about the relationship between music and dance, about what dancing was and where the boundaries of art dance were, about the roles of the individual and the chorus, and even the contemporary meaning of dance. Such disagreements reflect the many ways in which dance could signify at the time, and from the perspective of dance history, it is a pity that the legacy of The Rite of Springhas obliterated the art form’s own reflection on itself.
Nevertheless, Nijnsky’s The Rite of Springhas been seen as the precursor of modernism in art dance. Even outside of dance, this work has been associated with ideas of total art (Gesamtkunstwerk) and revolution, with primitivism in the visual arts and in music, and with the general social upheaval in the wake of the First World War that transformed, for example, gender roles. Yet, it is telling how much of the popularity of The Rite of Spring in dance has depended on the use of sound recordings as the musical accompaniment of dance, as Stravinsky’s score requires an exceptionally large orchestra, which is expensive and time-consuming to hire. At the same time, the disappearance of the first version from the repertoire and the fact that Nijinsky never presented his definitive interpretation as the work’s choreographer allows new choreographers a degree of freedom from the sheer weight of the canon. In other words, when new works are not compared to Nijinsky’s choreography, it is easier to approach the music, the libretto and even the legend of the 1913 performances from novel perspectives. Given how typical the French public’s loud protests were when it was first performed, The Rite of Spring would hardly have achieved its reputation as exceptional and revolutionary had it remained in the repertoire of the company year after year. Nevertheless, Diaghilev’s reputation as an innovative impresario is unlikely to have continued after the First World War had The Rite of Spring not become so important to a younger generation of artists and a success in concert halls.
From the perspective of contemporary dance, The Rite of Spring has inspired many famous choreographers to break boundaries between ballet and modern dance. When Léonide Massine brought his 1920 choreography to the United States in 1930, the role of the Chosen Maiden was taken by Martha Graham, one of the ‘pioneers’ of modern dance. In 1937, Lester Horton became the firstNorth American to choreograph the piece, transposing the story to localised ‘primitives’ – the Peoples of the Great Plains, represented in quite racist fashion. When the 90-year-old Martha Graham finally made her own version of The Rite of Spring in 1984, this work was also read as an ‘Americanised’ take in the light of Horton’s earlier interpretation. Graham’s choreography follows The Rite of Spring libretto in name only, and especially in the group dances the focus is on the strong torsion and expansive movements of the limbs characteristic to the Graham technique. As in many of Graham’s other works, her version focuses on the female soloist and her relationship with a man: the sacrificial dance of the Chosen Maiden culminates when she gets tied with a thick rope by the young High Priest.
As in Horton’s choreography, in many versions of The Rite of Spring, the idea of a ‘primitive’ culture has resulted in colonialist interpretations of otherness that trouble today’s spectators. In 1962, for example, Kenneth MacMillan set his choreography in the Aboriginal culture of Australia, and this problematic manner of appropriating the aesthetics of another culture has not been much criticised since – not even when this choreography has been rehearsed and performed in the twenty-first century. By way of comparison, Stephen Page created an Aboriginal choreographer’s take on The Rite of Spring, RITES (1997) for Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet. Unlike MacMillan, Page’s choreography constructs the piece through an Aboriginal worldview as an encounter between Indigenous people and white settlers, albeit one that moves from victimisation towards reconciliation and peace.
Page’s choreography reveals the versatility of The Rite of Spring as well as how different versions need not be beholden to the 1913 libretto. In Maurice Béjart’s 1959 version, the victim of the first act is a man and that of the second, a woman. The mass movements of the dancers in plain leotards and the confrontations between groups of dancers emphasise the dynamic variations in Stravinsky’s music. The piece is bombastic, exploiting ritualistic movement and sexual metaphors, and made a huge impression in its day. In 1974, Glen Tetley also choreographed a male victim, but one whose fate as a scapegoat rescues his community.
Pina Bausch’s chillingly beautiful 1975 work for Tanztheater Wuppertal revolves around a now-iconic figure of a woman in a red dress, who becomes a victim of society’s misogyny. The autonomous world of Bausch’s choreography is created by dirt-stained dancers rushing around in packs, shaking their fists, openly showing the physical effort of dancing. Despite death being imminent, the choreography is full of vitality. Germaine Acogny, the Senegalese choreographer who danced the lead role inOlivier Dubois’s 2017 The Rite of Spring choreography, rehearsed Bausch’s choreography for her own company in 2020. When the pandemic caused the cancellation of performances scheduled for London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre, a video shot during rehearsals in Dakar quickly went viral on the internet as if in response to the fear and isolation caused by the novel coronavirus.
Nijinsky’s choreography has been reimagined in films. In the1980 biopic Nijinsky, the choreography was by Kenneth MacMillan; in 2008, Dominique Brun choreographed a passage for the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, and she later continued working with this material in her Sacre #197 (2013). The Rite of Spring has also inspired reinterpretations in which the plot, music or history of the 1913 work are only alluded to in passing. In 1940, music from The Rite of Spring played as a backdrop to dancing hippos in Walt Disney’s Fantasia; in 1980, Paul Taylor set a film noirstory about a child kidnapped by gangsters to a piano version of the score; in 1984, Mats Ek’s dance theatre version for the Cullberg Ballet was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films; and in 2005, Trey McIntyre set his piece at a sophisticated cocktail party. Since the 1980s, The Rite of Spring has beenperformed with increasing frequency. Notable reinterpretations include Marie Chouinard’s animalistic dancers with horns and claws in 1993; the naked Chosen One who dominated the stage instead of falling victim in Angelin Preljocaj’s 2001 version; and Jeanguy Saintus’ 2019 choreography for Phoenix Dance Theatre, in which the significance of being chosen or sacrificed shifts completely as the dance celebrates the gods of Haitian Vodou.
The 2013 centenary of The Rite of Spring prompted many choreographers to take up this work, some more aptly than others. Nora Chipaumiere’s rite riot (2013), for example, explicitly addresses the question of what the ‘primitive’ is that is often associated with the work. The choreographer positions herself in a glass box, juxtaposing her own body with the colonialist ways nineteenth-century museums represented the ‘primitive,’ but immediately breaks apart the boundaries set by the colonialist gaze and the physical box. Similarly, The Rite (2013), a joint choreography by Bill T. Jones and Anne Bogart, deconstructs the primitivism associated with The Rite of Spring by staging, alongside the dancers, the characters of a soldier, a musicologist and a scientist, who articulate the significance of The Rite of Spring from different perspectives.
Some of the works in the continuum of Rites of Spring have even less of a connection to the 1913 choreography. For example, Min Tanaka’s 1987 butoh version does not play Stravinsky’s music or repeat the story of the chosen one; and in Jérôme Bel’s Jérôme Bel (1995) one of the performers simply writes Stravinsky’s name on a blackboard and sings The Rite of Spring a cappella. The Rite of Spring can thus be said to function as a network of hundreds of different choreographies, reflecting the very different ways in which a work in this art form can become part of a historical continuum. In Finland, Jorma Uotinen (1986), Sanna Kekäläinen (2001), Tero Saarinen (2002), Tiina Lindfors (2003) and Milla Koistinen (2013) have all contributed to this network.
1 Järvinen 2009a.
2 Järvinen 2009b.
3 Järvinen 2013a; 2013b; 2020.
4 E.g. Neff et al. 2017.
5 Järvinen 2013b; 2020. For example, Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical (2007) revises the choreography that Hodson claims is Nijinsky’s, because Rainer wanted to parody the documentary Riot at the Rite (2005) that she had seen. See Crimp 2007.
6 E.g. Eksteins 1989, esp. 9–54.
7 E.g. Weir 2013, 131–139.
8 As Cheryl Stock 2008 notes, the reception of RITES also had colonialist overtones.
9 E.g. Garafola 2017, 24–25.
10 Brandstetter & Klein 2015.
11 E.g. Bale 2008.
12 Bakst 2013.
13 Suhonen 2014.
Bakst, Lauren. 2013. “Rites of Spring.” BOMB magazine, 16 December 2013. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/rites-of-spring/ Accessed 12 November 2020.
Bale, Theodore. 2008. “Dancing Out of the Whole Earth: Modalities of Globalization in The Rite of Spring.” Dance Chronicle 31(3): 324–369.
Brandstetter, Gabriele & Klein, Gabriele, eds. Methoden der Tanzwissenschaft: Modellanalysen zu Pina Bauschs ‘The Rite of Spring/Das Frühlingsopfer.’ Bielefeld: transcript.
Crimp, Douglas. 2007. “1000 Words: Yvonne Rainer Talks about RoS Indexical, 2007.” Artforum International 46(3). www.artforum.com/print/200709/1000-words-yvonne-rainer-18814 Accessed 12 November 2020.
Eksteins, Modris. 1989. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. New York: Bantam Doubleday.
Garafola, Lynn. 2017. “A Century of Rites: The Making of an Avant-Garde Tradition.” In The Rite of Spring at 100, edited by Severine Neff, Maureen Carr, Gretchen Horlacher & John Reef, 17–28. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Järvinen, Hanna. 2009a. “Dancing without Space: On Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun (1912)” Dance Research 27:1, 28–64.
Järvinen, Hanna. 2009b. “Critical Silence: The Unseemly Games of Love in Games (1913).” Dance Research 27:2, 199–226.
Järvinen, Hanna. 2013a. “‘Great Horizons Flooded with the Alien Light of the Sun’: The Rite of Spring in the Russian Context.” Dance Research 31:1, 1–28.
Järvinen, Hanna. 2013b. “‘They Never Dance’: The Choreography of The Rite of Spring.” AVANT IV: 3/2013, 69–108. https://doi.org/10.12849/40302013.1012.0002.
Järvinen, Hanna. 2020. “Materiaalin muisti: Kevätuhrin puvustuksen kertomaa.” In Muisti, arkisto, esitys, edited by Tua Helve, Outi Lahtinen & Marja Silde, 340–386. Näyttämö ja tutkimus 8. Helsinki: Teatterintutkimuksen seura.
Neff, Severine & Carr, Maureen & Horlacher, Gretchen & Reef, John, eds. 2017. The Rite of Spring at 100. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Stock, Cheryl. 2008. “Different inflections: intercultural dance in Australia.” The Korean Journal of Dance 57, 289–308.
Suhonen, Tiina. 2014. Kevätuhrin sata vuotta: osa 3. Liikekieli.com 7 March 2014. https://www.liikekieli.com/kevatuhrin-sata-vuotta-osa-3/ Accessed 12 November 2020.
Hanna Järvinen a university lecturer and department head at the Performing Arts Research Centre of the Theatre Academy, docent in dance history at the University of Turku, and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at De Montfort University in Leicester. She has researched authorship and genius as well as the performing arts canon and the use of power in the light of feminist and postcolonial research traditions. She is also interested in issues of modernity and materiality at the intersection of performance and performing arts and dance orcid.org/0000-0001-9081-9906.