Le Sacre du Printemps — 100th Anniversary: A Quartet of Creators

ARTS, 27 May 2013

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

29 May marks the 100th anniversary of the first presentation of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) in 1913 in the then newly built Théatre des Champs-Elysées  designed by August Perret in the then new Art Déco style.  The music of Igor Strvinsky, the sets and costumes of Nicholas Roerich, the choreography of Vaslav Nijinski — all brought together by the impresario Serge Diaghilev — set the stage for the divide between the “old” and the “new”, made obvious to all by the start of the 1914-1918 World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The first performance went down in theatrical history because of the reaction of the public between those who championed the new forms of music and dance and those violently opposed. The reactions began with the first notes of music and continued through much of the performance although the theatre lights were turned on, and many people are braver to attack in the dark than in the light.  Diaghilev was not unhappy with the publicity which followed, having in part foreseen the reaction and had placed his  supporters including the modern composer Maurice Ravel, the poet Leon-Paul Fargue and the artist-writer Jean Cocteau in the first rows to prevent opponents from setting onto the stage.  The young and sensitive Stravinsky was deeply hurt by the opposition but, as became his habit, blamed others — in this case Vaslav Nijinski and his innovative choreography.

The Sacre du Printemps was the high point of Diaghilev’s career as a person who wanted to create a synthesis of the arts — painting, music, dance, and literature.  He had long proposed such a synthesis as the editor of an avant-guard cultural journal in St-Petersburg Mir Ishousstva. He brought people from different art forms together.  Diaghilev had already introduced Russian painting to Paris — then the center of the international art world followed by opera and ballet starting in 1909 with his Ballets Russes.  Thus the elite public in Paris were already aware of Diaghilev’s epoch-making efforts and of Vaslav Nijinski as a lead dancer, though not as a choreographer as the Sacre was his first public effort.  “Le tout Paris” (as government ministers, society hostesses, artists, journalists, couturiers were called) was present for the performance to see new marriages of style and content.

         Diaghilev had brought in 1911 the young Stravinsky to work with Nicholas Roerich, already well known as a painter and folklorist-archaeologist who had already done diggings on early mounds in Russia and was highly interested in early Slavic and Nordic migrations in Russia. The two men worked together for two summers on the theme of early Slavic rituals.  Roerich and Stravinsky were listed as co-librettists. Nijinsky gave equal rank to the two — Roerich having suggested some of the ritualistic steps during the rehearsals and the sets and costumes largely suggested the circular forms of the shamanistic ceremonies.

The 1913 Paris audience was little aware of the traditions and symbolism of early Slavic culture.  They took the death of the Chosen Maiden as unnecessary killing, an anti-humanitarian scenario, when, in fact, she is not a victim but a willing sacrifice for the good of the community.  Later during the Soviet period in Russia, in one version of the ballet in 1962 a “Soviet soldier” comes to the rescue of the maiden, sweeping her out of danger, thus taking all religious sense from the story.

The Sacre music was quickly transformed into concert music under the direction of Pierre Monteux who had also conducted the music for the dramatic opening.

The Nijinski version of the Sacre was only produced in 1913, several times in Paris and then London without strong reactions but with a real public interest.  Najinski and Diaghilev were in a homosexual relationship. At a moment when Diaghilev was away, Nijinski married a woman admirer, the Hungarian Romola de Pulsky. Late in 1913, on his return, Diaghilev pushed Nijinski out of the Ballets Russes and asked his new choreographer (and lover) Leonide Massine to create a new, less dramatic version.

Later, in the 1980s, Milicent Hodson, a US dance scholar and Kenneth Archer, an English art historian and specialist on Roerich, were able to piece together from drawings of Valentine Gross, photos and interviews with Marie Rambert who had been Nijinski’s assistant in 1913 what Nijinski’s choreography was. It was first represented in 1987 in Los Angeles by the Robert Joffrey Ballet.

The 100th anniversary is a reminder of inter-cultural influences and the way a small group of highly innovative persons can begin a deep and long-lasting trend.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 May 2013.

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