The most famous scandal in the history of music

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Avert your eyes and cover your ears, Young Lady

In Paris, on the evening of 29 May 1913, the Ballets Russes lobbed a jeroboam-sized Molotov cocktail into the plush amaranth of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The offending incendiary device was The Rite of Spring, a new ballet that shocked, baffled and outraged journalists, musos, and pearl-clutchers alike.

At this just-opened, decidedly modern theatre, located at 15 avenue Montaigne, top hats, pince-nez, and brocaded gowns elegantly mingled. In the audience: Proust, Picasso, Debussy, Ravel. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire “was dressed in evening clothes and was industriously kissing various important-looking ladies’ hands.” Renaissance man Jean Cocteau declared that “the audience played the role that was written for it,” that is, to be scandalized and to scandalize.

Bassoon and clarinet notes rose from the orchestra pit like dancing cobras. Piccolos shrieked like impaling shrikes. Strange harmonies and uncouth rhythms conflagrated into a lurching and stomping dance that presaged a human sacrifice. Whistles, catcalls and laughter disturbed the dancers. Shouting and hissing drowned out the music. Artistic factions, supporters of anything that shattered propriety and tradition, shouted out their support. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life,” shrieked one society matron.

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A riot ensued in which the audience pelted the orchestra and each other with programs and vegetables. Later reports claimed that the police ejected 40 people into the street named after the inventor of the essay.

Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

Musical arsonists, balletic incendiaries

Sergei Diaghilev, Russian exile, aesthete, and one of art’s great impresarios, heaved the giant flaming projectile, more or less. But to what degree did he fan its flames? We may never know. The premiere of The Rite of Spring remains the most famous scandale in the history of music.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes claims status as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. Its leader promoted bloggable collaborations among new, young and modern choreographers, composers, designers and dancers. He commissioned music from Stravinsky, Debussy, and Prokofiev, stage sets from Kandinsky, Picasso, and Matisse, and costume designs from Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.

Diaghilev had already stirred controversy for his company’s erotic interpretation of Claude Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune. But this time, his star dancer (and lover) Vaslav Nijinsky—a massive celebrity at the time, and today often cited as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century—would choreograph a style that violated all known canons of art, beauty, and grace.

Diaghilev commissioned the 30-year-old Russian compositeur-terrible Igor Stravinsky to write the music. Stravinsky had already achieved instant fame with his earlier masterpieces for Ballets Russes, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The composer would now push the boundaries of rhythmic structure and musical design to their breathtaking, jaw-dropping limits. Even by today’s standards, his score still seems avant-garde. It made him the most famous composer in the world.

Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

A short history of human sacrifice

At some point in its 200,000-year history, Homo sapiens discovered that when you sacrifice something in the present, you gain an advantage in the future. Universal religious fear and a terrified propitiation of the gods animated our past. The frenzied worship of the new gods of money, power, celebrity, and political self-righteousness animates our present.

The sacrifices continue. They include death by social media. Freedom of speech denied and punished—even in Canada. All the lives recently destroyed by false accusations and the denigration of due process. Far from being socially improving, those who perpetrate these sacrifices are really just crying against the cosmic pain that many of them naively think can be obliterated from human experience. Little do they understand that a robotic future awaits the logic of their thinking.

“I dreamed of a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin danced herself to death.” So said Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Born within a few months of James Joyce and Picasso, Stravinsky co-birthed Modernism. In the age of Freud and the Fauvists, artists, writers, and composers explored the primitive and the unconscious. African, Oceanic, and Native American masks and sculpture were all the rage (see Picasso’s menacing, proto-cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon).

The blood sacrifice came just 14 months after the premiere of The Rite of Spring, in the Great War, with 18 million dead. Twenty years later the Second World War offered up 60 million dead. The communist revolutions in 20th century China, Russia, Cambodia, Cuba and elsewhere offered up 100 million dead.

Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

Dance me to the end

At the end of the show last night at Montreal’s Place des Arts, you could almost smell the dancers’ costumes, earthbound in shades of brown, green, black and grey. French Choreographer Étienne Béchard, formerly a lead dancer with Béjart Ballet Lausanne, brought a fresh, chthonic barbarity to The Rite of Spring. It seems he’s going for a post-apocalyptic struggle between groups, as in some of our universities or The Walking Dead. But his work is anything but zombie-like. He offers us a wise, well-judged and fastidious interpretation of the music and subject matter that wrenches the tectonic plates of his predecessors—Nijinsky, Massine, Béjart—into new alignments of sensibility. The past 100 years of psychology, art, music, poetry, and dance are here instantiated.

Opening last night’s show: Stravinsky’s first ballet for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes: the brooding, frenzied, sublime, Russian-folksy but utterly Modern The Firebird (1910). Based on the still-relevant Russian legend of the same name, The Firebird tells the story of a prince who fights an evil magician and wins the hand of a princess with the help of a legendary bird. The score is a magical and mysterious brocade of fantasy, melancholy, and ecstasy; the triumphant Finale is one of the most ravishing three-and-a-half minutes in 20th century music.

American Choreographer Bridget Breiner, formerly Principal Dancer at the Stuttgart Ballet, brings her wide-ranging, virtuosic talents to both The Firebird and to a second piece entitled In Honour Of. The latter is a neo-Baroque homage to the great English baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659–1695). Its Latvian composer, Georgs Pelecis (b. 1947), charms us with strings, brass, and voices that filter the 17th century through a contemporary lens, like Lady Gaga building on the Pet Shop Boys.

Breiner’s work in a paintbox of genres has gained her a worldwide reputation. She blends a classical and contemporary dance vocabulary in thrillingly complex fractals of movement, dense with intelligent emotion and explosive energy.

Also on the bill: Presto-Detto, set to music by Vivaldi. This exuberant piece, choreographed by Ivan Cavallari, the artistic director of Les Grands Ballets, brims with corporeal storytelling as fast-moving and as entertaining as Boccaccio.

Do not miss this rare opportunity to experience these four dances live with full orchestra, the passionate and precise Jean-François Rivest conducting.

Continues until 25 March:


About Author

Robert Kilborn has written fact and fiction for the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, La Scena Musicale, Westmount Magazine, Cult Montreal, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art (New York), and Tuck Magazine (London, England). He started out as a rock singer. At the University of British Columbia he read Literature, Philosophy, and Art History. He’s a former English teacher, Don Draper, and General Manager of one of Canada’s leading modern dance companies, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.

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