Ashton / Eyal / Nijinski

The Rite of Spring

Back to the roots

By Béatrice Picon-Vallin 29 December 2021

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© Yonathan Kellerman / OnP

The Rite of Spring
In 1913, the premiere of Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes caused a scandal for its audacity and radical approach. Béatrice Picon-Vallin looks back at the ritual sources of ancient pagan Russia that inspired this work, now performed by the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet on the stage of the Palais Garnier, in a choreographic re-creation by Dominique Brun and based on the sets and costumes imagined by Nicolas Roerich at the time of its creation more than a century ago.  

At the premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913, the scandal was such that the dancers could no longer hear the orchestra drowned as it was by laughter, grunts, whistles, exchanges of slaps and insults, commotion and brawls. Primitivism was on stage and barbarism in the audience, who nevertheless deemed the performance 'barbaric'. Where did this unidentified object come from? This "ballet"? Its complex genesis remains debated, with both the composer Stravinsky and the set designer Roerich claiming authorship. In any case, the work is the result of a true collaboration between three artists: the musician, the painter and the dancer prodigy turned choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, who was twenty-four at the time.

The subtitle of The Rite of Spring, "Pictures of Pagan Russia" (the exact translation would be "Holy Spring"), immediately asserts its innovativeness. French critics were unanimously hostile, with a few exceptions, and were even in a state of shock: musical audacity, dominance of rhythmic pulsations and dissonances, unconventional use of instruments. The choreography is described as absurd, clumsy, stumbling, animalistic... It radically challenges the codes of classical dance with its soaring flights and verticality: here were bodies bent downwards, feet turned inwards beating on the ground... Numerous controversies have accompanied the history of this mythical ballet, which is violently aggressive both in terms of sound and visual impact. There were only nine performances, including the dress rehearsal, yet a whole aesthetic world was awakened by the confrontation with pagan cultures, close to nature.

Igor Stravinsky speaks of a dream he had, while finishing The Firebird, of the vision of an ancestral ritual - which well reflects the overall context of a return to the archaic, not only in Russia, but in the Europe of the second decade of the twentieth century. It was Nikolai Roerich, a painter from the group "Le Monde de l'art", a man of many interests, ethnologist and archaeologist, scientist and poet, academician and great traveller (he directed many excavations), whose erudition would accompany the composer in writing the libretto, just as he was to accompany Nijinsky, a friend of his since 1909, throughout the latter's artistic research. More than a decorator and costume designer, Roerich was an inspirer, a consultant, an expert on the culture of Slavic paganism's nomadic tribes from Finland to Siberia. In July 2011, Stravinsky and Roerich worked together on the libretto in Talachkino, near Smolensk, at the home of Princess Tenicheva, who had assembled a famous collection of traditional objects from which Roerich drew motifs for the costumes. Nijinsky wrote to his sister Bronislava: "Roerich's art inspires me as much as Stravinsky's musical energy. His paintings, Idols (1901)1, Daughters of the Earth, The Call of the Sun, in which we see dawn breaking over a deserted landscape in purple and violet tones, a single ray of sunlight shining on a group of people gathered on top of a hill in anticipation of spring, (...) Roerich spoke to me a great deal about this cycle of paintings. And the painter lent his support to the choreographer in the face of the hostility that his bold innovations often provoked in rehearsals.

According to Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring expresses "the secret kinship that links our ancestors to the earth". The rites, shamanic in nature, celebrate in a sacred setting the passage from winter to spring when the earth is reborn. The first partportrays the diurnal and joyful rites of a tribe gathered on the eve of the March equinox. "Rituals of abduction" where adolescents and young men pursue and embrace young women and girls and then join together in more peaceful “khorovodi” or Spring Rounds dances, followed by the "Ritual of the Rival Tribes" where the boys show their strength and audacity. From the groups emerge two figures of the tribe, the "Old woman of three hundred years" who performs acts of divination with wands, and at the head of a procession-procession of Elders, a very old Sage, with a long white beard, who gives the ritual Kiss to the earth, during a silent pause, followed by the heavy, frenetic, ecstatic trampling of the earth, summoned to come out of its winter torpor.

The second part is devoted to night-time rites on a sacred hill, the ceremony of the Great Sacrifice. The young girls wind themselves in multiple circle dances and mysterious games, from which will emerge, glorified, the Chosen One, the most beautiful, and the only one to dance a solo. Within a circle, she performs a frantic, powerful, angular dance, faster and faster, under the gaze of the Ancestors, until she finally collapses dead from exhaustion. This is the sacrifice to the god of spring, the sun god Yarilo, designed to obtain the fertilisation of the earth by the nourishing rain in the hope of abundant harvests. Bronislava Nijinska, for whom the choreography of the Chosen One3 was conceived, later recounted that she was instructed that, in order to save the earth, she should summon up all the energy of a pending storm in order to confront it with the same force, and thus protect the tribe from the threats of heaven. Perhaps the rituals of pagan Russia were interpreted by Nijinsky in a visionary way, since one might sense in them the tragic events to come in 1914. All the ethnographic material collected is treated in these "Georgics of prehistory", as Jean Cocteau put it, in a modernist rather than a backward-looking vein.

The dancers wear festive costumes, large white peasant shirts, embroidered with traditional and sometimes esoteric motifs - orange and blue for example, which refer to the cult of Yarilo. The girls embroidered skirts are white, blue or red. They have all swapped their dance shoes for the ancient birch-bark lapti of the Slavic steppes, which have existed since the Neolithic period. Roerich was well aware of the ritual geometries of both space and decorative motifs, which he transposed to the costumes and which inspired Nijinsky's choreographic movements. Lastly, Roerich's sets, simple and luminous, imbued with a magical realism, represent only the elements essential to the cult of nature: rocks and sacred birches, lake, meadow, hills, sky.

Russian artists at the beginning of the 20th century, as elsewhere in Europe (see the Viennese Secessionists journal Ver sacrum4), were particularly interested in primitive times, in Slavic tales or rituals. One thinks first of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden - 1882), in whose libretto springtime nature and Yarilo are so present. Stravinsky's Firebird (1910, choreography by Michel Fokine with sets by Alexander Golovine and Leon Bakst) focuses on lush nature, its golden apples and its magical powers (the Firebird's feather, the power of the dreaded Kashtchei who turns intrusive humans to stone). Fokine's Petrushka to music by Stravinsky, danced by Nijinsky (1911), is about balagan or popular theatre, with its puppets and dancing bears during Mardi Gras celebrations. In 1911, a rival project to the Parisian Rite of Spring was developed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with Fokine, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Golovine, the composer Anatoli Liadov and Alexei Remizov, a symbolist writer5. Remizov was an expert on popular traditions, but from a different perspective than Roerich, focusing more on mythological characters, “russalki”, fantastic beings similar to mermaids, who live in the water as well as in the fields and forests, “kikimori” and other spirits of houses, marshes and woods. Alaleï and Leïla's project is to compose a Roussalia, named after the summer solstice festival devoted to these creatures, guardians of the rains and protectors of the harvest. Liadov collaborated on writing a folklorically stylized libretto but died before completing the music.

The originality of the Rite is clearly evident. Just as Stravinsky drew on (a melody from Rimsky Korsakov's 1877 collection) or collected, in Talachkino or the Ukraine, motifs from ritual or religious chants, and radically transformed these hardly recognisable borrowings so as to condense their essence, in a process of abstraction from the original material6, the libretto did not retain the picturesque characters of Slavic mythology, and Nijinsky composed a group choreography whose figures and postures, along with the composition and recomposition of groups in movement, revive the idea of a primitive community and its collective emotions. Stravinsky's music conveys both the joy of Nature's renewal and a sense of fear in the face of its mysteries and energy. Roerich sees its beauty and spirituality, Nijinsky reverses the codes of classical beauty to dance it. Woven from these pagan and composite elements, is The Rite not in fact, as the great theatre critic Sergei Volkonsky7 notes, more than a ballet: a "mystery", a ritual action in itself - the Dionysian action sought by the Russian symbolists and the composer Alexander Scriabin (his unfinished Prefatory Action)? And is this perhaps the secret of its strength, its longevity, its 'eternity'?


1 Large carved and painted wooden statues standing on the pagan places of worship of the ancient Slavs.

2 L. Garafola, Russkij balet Djagileva (Diaghilev's Ballets russes), trans. from English by O. Levenkov and M. Ivonina, Perm, Kniznyj mir, 2009, pp. 68-93; I. Sirotina, "Kto pridumal Vesnu?", in Jubilej šedevra: k stoletiu Vesny svjachenoj I. Stravinskogo", Naunyj vestnik Mosk. Konservatorii ("Who invented The Rite?", in The Centenary of a Masterpiece: I. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring), The Scientific Messenger of the Moscow Conservatory), 2015, no. 1(20), pp. 59-69.    

3 Pregnant, she was replaced by Maria Piltz.

4 In Latin ver sacrum (Livy) means 'holy spring'. The expression refers to a rite of the Italic peoples dedicated to the god Mars where, in spring, certain young people were expelled from their cities to found their own.

5 He was a consultant for The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.    

6 See Richard Taruskin, "From The Firebird to The Rite. Folk elements in Stravinsky's Scores", in Ballet Review 10, no. 2 (summer 1982).

7 An expert on Jaques-Dalcroze's method and on Russian and European theatrical life, he was also a teacher.    

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