Design of stage backdrop for
Le Sacre du printemps, prepared by Nicholas Roerich for Diaghilev’s production, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913. Tempera and pastel on caedboard, original dimensions 62cm x 94cm  

It was in two scenes, but had no real plot, the action representing merely a series of primitive rites. With one exception there were no individual dances, but only big ensembles. Stravinsky’s music was quite unsuitable for dancing; but this troubled neither Diaghilev nor Nijinsky, whose aim was to present only a succession of rhythmically moving groups.
—S. L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet 1909–1929

Serge Leonidovich Grigoriev was the régisseur of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and his firsthand account of Le Sacre du printemps—its creation and reception—possesses an eye-of-the-storm quiet, as if he’s still under the spell of Diaghilev’s directive on the night of the premiere: Keep calm and carry on. “Whatever happens,” Diaghilev said, “the ballet must be performed to the end.”

Diaghilev knew he was presenting Paris with something it wasn’t prepared for. Igor Stravinsky’s score was symphonic, but it was without the symmetrical structures or architecturally reinforced melodies that are the body and soul of a symphony. Indeed, he meant his score to be soulless. Vaslav Nijinsky’s dance was called a ballet, but it did not attempt to dispel or transcend gravity as classical ballets were expected to do; instead, his dancers bowed down under a cosmic weight, burdened by it and in awe of it. The third collaborator, the artist, anthropologist, and mystic Nicholas Roerich, provided the least jarring elements of the ballet: ethnographically correct costumes of pagan Russian folk dress and painted backdrops that suggest the earth of an earlier age. He also helped devise the ballet’s thirteen-movement scenario and provided the Lithuanian folk tunes that Stravinsky absorbed into his score.

Three Russians, three unique geniuses, and despite the accounts of push-pull during the collaboration all three reaching simultaneously forward by going backward, making a ballet that was not a ballet at all, but something clean and raw and new and hungry. In a letter to Roerich, Stravinsky referred to the work that would become Le Sacre as “our child.”

By ballet standards, it was a long gestation, dating from a vision Stravinsky had in 1910 while finishing The Firebird. He saw “a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watch[ing] a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” Roerich had come up with a similar “Stone Age” scenario in 1909. So the two were on parallel tracks. The Great Sacrifice and Holy Spring were Stravinsky’s early working titles; Supreme Sacrifice was Roerich’s. “Who else knows the secret of our ancestors’ close feeling to the earth?,” Stravinsky wondered before he teamed up with Roerich. A secret worth discovering, this primitive closeness to the earth. Here was a circling back, a beginning over. The subject opened up powerful associations: ignorance-imagination, primal-amoral, death-life, destruction-creation. Part I of the ballet, Adoration of the Earth, has young men and maidens, a fortune teller and a sage performing formal and boisterous spring rituals. Part II, The Sacrifice, presented inscrutable nighttime games, the selection and glorification of a chosen maiden, and her solo—the Danse Sacrale—a climactic dance of fear, flight, and finality.

Diaghilev, who was not initially involved in the developing idea—an exclusion he didn’t like—embraced the project anyway. His instinct for salable controversy was as keen as his instinct for innovation and here were both. Although Michel Fokine was the company’s house choreographer, Diaghilev saw to it that Nijinsky replaced Fokine, even though Nijinsky was still unformed as a choreographer and the score before him was monstrously complex. Diaghilev knew that if anyone had a “close feeling to the earth” it was Nijinsky. (“I am a man and not a beast,” the dancer would one day write in his diary, “I am a man and not God . . . I am the earth.”) At great expense Diaghilev made possible an unheard of 100 rehearsals.

Approaching thirty when he was at work on Le Sacre, “Stravinsky was brimming with self-assurance, even hubris,” writes Charles M. Joseph in Stravinsky’s Ballets. “Moreover, he knew exactly what he was provoking, and he relished the apostasy of which others accused him.” The agenda for Stravinsky, and for Nijinsky as well, was rupture and rebirth—revolution, if you will—a throwing off of the tried and true, or rather, the true that had become decorative, formulaic, untrue. Diaghilev’s agenda—“The ballet must be performed to the end”—was framed differently. Unfinished works do not make history and making history is what Diaghilev was all about. It is doubtful he knew that this work of art would become the most symbolic of the twentieth century. What he did know was that Le Sacre had taken on a life of its own. It had to be born.

The accounts of the premiere that took place on May 29, 1913—it was actually the second performance; the first, an open dress rehearsal on the 28th, passed without problems—are contradictory in particulars but generally in accord. Count Harry Kessler, a patron of the arts and of the Ballets Russes, reports in his diary that the audience, “the most elegant house I have ever seen in Paris—aristocracy, diplomats, the demimonde—was from the beginning restless, laughing, whistling, making jokes.” In Stravinsky: A Creative Spring, Stephen Walsh writes, “Word had got about after the final rehearsals that the new ballet was difficult, violent, incomprehensible; what better response to these disturbing qualities than laughter and ridicule?” Defenders shouted at detractors. Commotion grew. “And above this crazy din,” Kessler continues, “the music raged and on the stage the dancers, without flinching, danced fervently in a prehistoric fashion.” The conductor Pierre Monteux, also unflinching, spurred the orchestra through to the end, deaf to the storm around him. Stravinsky and Nijinsky were beside themselves. Five minutes into the ballet Stravinsky left his seat in the audience and raced backstage, where he says he found Nijinsky on a chair shouting counts at the dancers, who couldn’t hear the music over the din. Grigoriev, however, remembers Nijinsky standing “silent in the wings,” stunned.

Some accounts blame Stravinsky’s music for the uproar—the savage dissonance, the screaming brass, the ferocious momentum and mad-seeming rhythms. Nijinsky thought this was so. Others pointed to Nijinsky’s “ugly” choreography, the turned-in, pigeon-toed, note-for-note stamping and trembling of the dancers—“a crime against grace.” Was one more inflammatory than the other, or was it the combination of the two? Kessler, clear-eyed, wrote of Le Sacre, “A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time.”

In the 1959 book, Memories and Commentaries, Robert Craft asked Stravinsky, What did you love most in Russia? Stravinsky answered, “The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking. That was the most wonderful event of every year of my childhood.”

There’s no question that the first two ballets Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911), made big impressions among musicians and audiences. The Firebird was precocious, but tonally derivative. Petrushka was audacious, freer of form; it ruffled peers, inspiring envy and resentment. With Le Sacre, Stravinsky tapped into the springs of his childhood, but without a glint of sentiment, as heartless as a plant or a mantid, and matured overnight. “It seems,” he would write, “that twenty years, not two, have passed since The Firebird.” The first movement of Le Sacre, an Introduction about three minutes in length, recreates “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour.” It opens with a solo bassoon at high register, articulating an ancient melodic line that curves and drops like a creeping vine, quickly joined by other woodwinds that creep and climb, greenery quickening in the reeds, buds swelling, birdsong trilling in branches, calls mournful and raucous, while almost imperceptibly a beat—the pulsing earth—rises into these boughs of sound. The lyricism is sharp and impersonal, yet not without precedent for ballet-goers. The slow opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, premiered in 1877, are dominated by a lone oboe. And Claude Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, composed in 1894 and made into a ballet by Nijinsky that premiered in 1912, opens with a solo flute. Le Sacre’s introduction, even in 1913, resides in the realm of art.

It is the transition into the second movement, “Augurs of Spring,” that summons what Kessler called “un-art.” Immediately the famously stressed ostinato chords of horns and strings sound out—juttingly percussive strokes that are like the burnt-black ties of a railroad track. In an interview just before the premiere, Stravinsky spoke of Le Sacre’s melody developing “along a horizontal line which swells or contracts only according to the volume of instruments—the intense dynamism of the orchestra rather than the melodic line itself.” And in 1964, critiquing a recording of the score conducted by Herbert von Karajan, he wrote, “I doubt whether The Rite can be satisfactorily performed in terms of Herr von Karajan’s traditions. I do not mean to imply that he is out of his depths, but rather that he is in my shallows. . . . There are simply no regions for soul-searching in The Rite of Spring.” The swelling, thinning, hurtling locomotion of Le Sacre is one of its terrors, the linear drive of a behemoth on horizontal rails, compelled forward, unable to turn right or left or stop. In the sixth movement, “Procession of the Sage,” the ostinato chords—louder, slower, scarier—have such leaden heaviness and drag it’s hard not to think of an engine pulling out of a station.

During the planning and composition of Le Sacre, Stravinsky was bedeviled by trains. In July of 1911, having travelled to Talashkino to work on the scenario with Roerich, the composer “discovered that I would have to wait two days for the next train to Smolensk. I therefore bribed the conductor of a freight train to let me ride in a cattle car, though I was all alone in it with a bull! The bull was leashed by a single not-very-reassuring rope, and as he glowered and slavered I began to barricade myself behind one small suitcase.” And Stephen Walsh tells us that three months later in Clarens, grappling with the first part of Le Sacre, Stravinsky was interrupted every morning “by a train [which] he used to anticipate . . . with hatred and baited nerves.” Freight and hatred. Horns and nerves. A cattle car. In his cultural history Rites of Spring, Modris Eksteins calls Le Sacre “perhaps the emblematic oeuvre of a twentieth-century world that, in the pursuit of life, has killed off millions of its best human beings.” Another commentator ventured, “The composer has written a score that we shall not be ready for until 1940.” There is no question that the symbolic half-life of Stravinsky’s score, its frightening modernism, owes much to this machinery.

And its symbolisms proliferate. Le Sacre’s overlapping linearities are like shifting tectonic plates, an epochal realignment; its extravagant syncopations like nineteenth-century musical meter cracked open, a freshly aggressive energy unleashed. The work is uncanny in its foreshadowing of World War I, which commenced a year later and was the first war to use armored tanks. In a different vein, the critic Jacques Rivière called Le Sacre “a biological ballet . . . spring seen from the inside, with its violence, its spasms and its fissions,” which makes one think first of Darwinism and then of Richard Dawkins and his more recent theories in The Selfish Gene. The fact that Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava was supposed to dance the Chosen Maiden, but couldn’t because she became pregnant, brings a metaphor of fertility, birth, to the foreground. And Martha Graham’s dancing of the role in 1920, when Léonid Massine re-choreographed the ballet, suggests that the singular women of modern dance, each creating her own movement language in the twentieth century, are a generation of self-invented “chosen maidens.” In teaching the role to Bronislava’s replacement, Maria Piltz, Nijinsky himself danced it a number of times. “His ecstatic performance,” his assistant Marie Rambert recalled, “was the greatest tragic dance I have ever seen.” In 1919 Nijinsky was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

New commentary on Stravinsky and bar-by-bar analysis of his Le Sacre are being published to this day. But Nijinsky’s ballet—which received a mere handful of performances in Paris and even fewer in London—was all but lost by 1920, when Diaghilev asked Massine for new choreography. In the decades that followed, Nijinsky’s choreography existed only in written descriptions, illustrations, old photos, and the memories of those who had taken some part in the eight performances. In 1987, however, the Joffrey Ballet presented a reconstruction of Le Sacre du printemps that was the fruit of sixteen years of research by the choreographer and dance historian Millicent Hodson. Working with every scrap of choreographic evidence and recollection she could find, plus the original prompt books and sketches, she pieced together a stage-worthy version of Nijinsky’s “succession of rhythmically moving groups.” Roerich’s sets and costumes were reconstructed by Kenneth Archer.

The Hodson–Archer Le Sacre was controversial, as just about every reconstruction of a late-nineteenth-century or early-twentieth-century dance has been. There is no way to measure the authenticity of the final product and this makes critics, who don’t want to be wrong, uncomfortable. Obviously, reconstructions are imperfect. Even when every step, pose, and posture is pulled from a trusted notation, there will be flaws of accent, dynamics, atmosphere, tone. In the end it comes down to whether or not there is enough to believe in, to embrace. A film of the Joffrey reconstruction taped in 1989 is now available on YouTube in three parts—a few computer clicks away. It is gripping, it is gorgeous, and, to this eye, it is persuasive.

Stravinsky was well-pleased with the ballet of 1913—“Nijinsky’s choreography was incomparable,” he would write—but with the decades he began to distance himself from Nijinsky’s contribution, preferring to see his Le Sacre as complete in itself, cut free of its roots in narrative. The compositional gambit Stravinsky complained of in the Thirties—Nijinsky’s belief “that the choreography should re-emphasize the musical beat and pattern through constant co-ordination”—is vividly present in the reconstruction. It is a strength, not simplistic at all, but animating. The stylization of dancers in circles, in rows, in profile, like shallow etchings in relief, set against muscular hops and jumps on a repeating beat, reinforces the horizontal flow of Stravinsky’s music, its sense of the inevitable. The percussive arm gestures have an iconic heft and the light-footed skittering a velocity that is exciting. It’s as if every pore is open to the sounds of Stravinsky, and every life is moving a little too fast.

Part I is colorful; perhaps too colorful for those grown used to the black-and-white photos of Le Sacre’s original dancers. Part II is moonlit, mysterious, and its first movement, Mystic Circles of the Young Girls, is spellbinding, hushed yet structurally masterful. The maidens in their white shifts—soft and complicit, lambent and ruthless—seem to carry the secret Stravinsky sought to know. It is from within these woven patterns, with their strange glides and stops, that the chosen maiden tumbles forward. She is danced by Beatriz Rodriguez, and the performance is one of ice and fire. Analyzing the Danse Sacrale, which is the only solo in the ballet, the musicologist Peter Hill has described how it is set off from the rest of the work: “The music suddenly becomes taut, expectant, purposeful—‘vertical,’ not linear.” Hearing Stravinsky profoundly, Nijinsky sends the maiden rocketing upward, reaching into the sky for escape. She whirls, trembles, buckles, makes a break but is hemmed in, shoots upward once more. She jumps frantically, as if skipping the rope of a giant. The choreography is in every way equal to the music because it is direct, un-decorative, and deeply childlike. Un-art and art at the same time, at every turn.