Science Shows That Snowball the Cockatoo Has 14 Different Dance Moves: The Vogue, Headbang & More

We humans think we invented everything.

The wheel…

The printing press…

Dancing…

Well, we’re right about the first two.

Turns out the impulse to shake a tail feather isn’t an arbitrary cultural construct of humanity but rather a hard-wired neurological impulse in beings classified as vocal learners—us, elephants, dolphins, songbirds, and parrots like the Internet-famous sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, above.

Animals outside of this elite set can be trained to execute certain physical moves, or they may just look like they’re dancing when tracking the movements of their food bowl or shimmying with relief at being picked up from doggy daycare.




Snowball, however, is truly dancing, thanks to his species’ capacity for hearing, then imitating sounds. Like every great spontaneous dancer, he’s got the music in him.

Aniruddh Patel, a Professor of Psychology at Tufts who specializes in music cognition, was the first to consider that Snowball’s habit of rocking out to the Backstreet Boys CD he’d had in his possession when dropped off at a parrot rescue center in Dyer, Indiana, was something more than a party trick.

Dr. Patel notes that parrots have more in common with dinosaurs than human beings, and that our monkey cousins don’t dance (much to this writer’s disappointment).

(Also, for the record? That goat who sings like Usher? It may sound like Usher, but you'll find no scientific support for the notion that its vocalizations constitute singing.)

Snowball, on the other hand, has made a major impression upon the Academy.

In papers published in Current Biology and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Patel and his co-authors John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz delved into why Snowball can dance like … well, maybe not Fred Astaire, but certainly your average moshing human.

After extensive observation, they concluded that an individual must possess five specific mental skills and predilections in order to move impulsively to music:

  1. They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
  2. They must be able to imitate movements.
  3. They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be attentive to the movements of others.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

Cockatoos can do all of this. Humans, too.

Patel’s former student R. Joanne Jao Keehn recently reviewed footage she shot in 2009 of Snowball getting down to Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" and Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," identifying 14 distinct moves.

According to her research, his favorites are Vogue, Head-Foot Sync, and Headbang with Lifted Foot.

If you’ve been hugging the wall since middle school, maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, followed by an avian dancing lesson.

How did Snowball come by his astonishing rug-cutting confidence? Certainly not by watching instructional videos on YouTube. His human companion Schulz dances with him occasionally, but doesn't attempt to teach him her moves, which she describes as "limited."

Much like two human partners, they’re not always doing the same thing at the same time.

And the choreography is purely Snowball’s.

As Patel told The Harvard Gazette:

It’s actually a complex cognitive act that involves choosing among different types of possible movement options. It’s exactly how we think of human dancing.

If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.

You can read more science-based articles inspired by Snowball and watch some of his many public appearances on the not-for-profit, donation-based sanctuary Bird Lovers Only’s website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why We Dance: An Animated Video Explains the Science Behind Why We Bust a Move

Has any culture, apart from that of the tiny Utah town in Footloose, done entirely without dancing? It would at first seem that any human need the rhythmic shaking of one's limbs to organized sound fulfills must reside pretty low on the overall priority scale, but anthropology tells us that various human societies started dancing before they got into most every other activity that fills their time today. "Why is this ostensibly frivolous act so fundamental to being human?" asks the Aeon video above. "The answer, it seems, is in our need for social cohesion — that vital glue that keeps societies from breaking apart despite interpersonal differences."

Directed and animated by Rosanna Wan and Andrew Khosravani, the four-minute explainer frames our deep, culture-transcending need to "bust a move" in terms of the work of both 19th- and early 20th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim and more recent research performed by Bronwyn Tarr, an Oxford evolutionary biologist who also happens to be a dancer herself.




Durkheim posited the phenomenon of "collective effervescence," or "a sort of electricity," or "that exhilaration, almost euphoria, that overtakes groups of people united by a common purpose, pursuing an intensely involving activity together." When you feel it, you feel "a flow, a sense that your self is melding with the group as a whole." And has any practice generated as much collective effervescence throughout human history as dance?

Modern science has shed a bit of light on why: Tarr has found that "we humans have a natural tendency to synchronize our movements with other humans," thanks to a region in the brain which helps us make the same movements we see others making. "When we mimic our partner's movements, and they're mimicking ours, similar neural networks in both networks open up a rush of neurohormones, all of which make us feel good." Listening to music "can create such a euphoric delight that it appears to activate opioid receptors in the brain," making it even harder to resist getting up and dancing. "They said he'd never win," Footloose's tagline said of the movie's big-city teen intent on getting the town dancing again, but "he knew he had to" — an assurance that turns out to have had a basis in neurology.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Video Changed Pop Culture Forever: Revisit the 13-Minute Short Film Directed by John Landis

Michael Jackson's Thriller, the album, had spent the previous year at the top of the charts before the John Landis-directed video for the title track debuted in 1983. Two previous videos, for massive hits “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” kept him on constant rotation on the fledgling MTV and other networks. It seemed that the “naïve, preternaturally gifted 25-year-old” couldn’t get any more internationally famous, but then, as Nancy Griffin writes at Vanity Fair, “it was the ‘Thriller’ video that pushed Jackson over the top, consolidating his position as the King of Pop."

His naïveté was matched by a shrewd, calculating ambition, and the story of the “Thriller” video highlights both. After seeing An American Werewolf in London, he chose Landis to make a video that would goose Thriller’s sales as they started to fall. Landis, the profane, irreverent director of The Blues Brothers and Animal House, may have seemed an odd choice for the wholesome pop star, who prefaced his zombie spoof with a pious disclaimer about his “strong personal convictions.” (Shortly before the video's release, Jackson, under pressure from the Jehovah's Witnesses, asked Landis to destroy it.)




It turns out, however, that when Jackson called Landis, he hadn’t seen any of the director’s other films (and Landis hadn’t heard the song). It was Landis who suggested that the video be turned into a 14-minute short film, a choice that set the bar high for the form ever since. As he told Billboard’s John Branca on the video’s 35th anniversary, just days ago:

Music videos at that time were always just needle drop. Some were pretty good, but most were not, and they were commercials. Michael’s such a huge star that I said, “Maybe I can bring back the theatrical short.” I pitched him the idea, and he totally went for it. Michael was extremely enthusiastic because he wanted to make movies.

Before “Thriller” even aired, it was a high-profile event. “Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson and Jackie Kennedy Onassis all turned up on set,” notes Phil Hebblethwaite, “and Eddie Murphy, Prince and Diana Ross were spotted at the private premier.” After the video premiered on MTV at midnight on December 2nd, it sealed the network’s “reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station’s treatment of music,” and “helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales.”

“Thriller” turned the making of music videos into a “proper industry,” says Brian Grant, the British director who made videos for Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” It “launched a dance craze,” Karen Bliss writes at Billboard, and “a red-jacket fashion favorite.” It won three MTV Awards, two American Music Awards, and a Grammy. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, designated as a national treasure.

But as we look back on unprecedented historic impact “Thriller” had on pop culture, we must also look at its continued impact in the present. It remains the most popular music video of all time. “’Thriller’ is thriving on YouTube,” Griffin writes. Celebrities and ordinary people, professional and amateur dance troops, Filipino prisoners and Norwegian soldiers, routinely perform its dance moves for the camera all over the world. An entire genre of how-to videos teach viewers how to do the "Thriller" dance. This past September, it became the first music video released in IMAX 3D.

The video received the documentary treatment in Jerry Kramer’s Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. Landis tells Branca one story that did not make it into Kramer's movie. After Quincy Jones refused him permission to remix the song, he and Jackson walked into the studio at night, took the tapes, duplicated them and returned them. The song that appears in the video “is very different than the record,” says Landis. “I only used a third of the lyrics. It’s a 3-minute song; in the film, it plays for 11 minutes.” Jones and engineer Bruce Swedien didn’t even notice, says the director, they were so enthralled with what they saw onscreen.

What continues to drive “Thriller’s” popularity? The combination of good clean fun and perfectly-pitched camp horror—Vincent Price voiceover and all? The virtuoso dance moves, zombie choreography, and irresistibly sleek 80s fashions? All of the above, of course, and also some indefinable sum of all these parts, a perfect combination of cinematic depth and shiny pop culture surfaces that set the benchmark for the format for three-and-a-half decades.

Related Content:

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James Hill Plays Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on the Ukulele: Watch One Musician Become a Complete Band

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Twerking, Moonwalking AI Robots–They’re Now Here

In a study released last year, Katja Grace at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute “surveyed the world’s leading researchers in artificial intelligence by asking them when they think intelligent machines will better humans in a wide range of tasks.” After interviewing 1,634 experts, they found that they “believe there is a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years.” That includes everything from driving trucks, running cash registers, to performing surgery, and writing New York Times bestsellers. These sobering predictions have prompted academics, like Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun, to write books along the lines of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence which asks the question, How can universities "educate the next generation of college students to invent, to create, and to discover—filling needs that even the most sophisticated robot cannot"? It's a good question. But a challenging one too. Because it assumes we understand what robots can, and cannot, do. Case in point, Boston Dynamics released a video this week of its SpotMini robot dancing to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” It can moonwalk. It can twerk. Did the dance departments see that coming? Doubt it.

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Bauhaus Ballet: A Dance of Geometry

During the past month, the Great Big Story has released a series of videos that revisit the design aesthetic of the Bauhaus movement. Their first video explored the radical buildings designed by Bauhaus architects. A second focused on the legacy of minimalist Bauhaus furniture. And now a third takes as its subject Oskar Schlemmer's 1922 “Triadic Ballet”--a ballet famous for putting geometry and structure into dance. The video above shows the "Bayerisches Junior Ballet München as they prepare to bring Bauhaus center stage again." You can watch a full recreation of the ballet and learn much more about Schlemmer's experimental production by reading this post from our archive.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Watch an Avant-Garde Bauhaus Ballet in Brilliant Color, the Triadic Ballet, First Staged by Oskar Schlemmer in 1922.

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Dancing in Movies: A Montage of Dance Moments from Almost 300 Feature Films

Someone went through a great deal of effort to stitch together a montage of dance scenes from some 300 feature films. Below find a list of films in order of their appearance, and with the appropriate timestamp.

00:00:06 - Tropic Thunder (2008)

00:09:17 - 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

00:10:10 - Frank (2014)

00:11:02 - Deadpool (2016)

00:12:02 - Girlhood (2015)

00:13:10 - West Side Story (1961)

00:16:18 - Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

00:18:00 - Big (1988)

00:18:14 - Risky Business (1983)

00:19:05 - Forrest Gump (1994)

00:19:21 - 20th Century Women (2016)

00:21:02 - God Help the Girl (2014)

00:22:07 - Begin Again (2013)

00:23:16 - The Rocketeer (1991)

00:25:13 - Dead Poets Society (1989)

00:27:21 - Braveheart (1995)

00:28:22 - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

00:29:23 - Robin Hood (1973)

00:31:00 - Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

00:32:14 - Titanic (1997)

00:33:14 - Big Fish (2003)

00:35:07 - Go (1999)

00:36:14 - Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

00:37:12 - Citizen Kane (1941)

00:38:12 - Life is Beautiful (1997)

00:40:01 - White Nights (1985)

00:42:08 - Swing Time (1936)

00:44:13 - Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

00:45:21 - Mermaids (1990)

00:48:14 - Home Alone (1990)

00:49:18 - Mulholland Drive (2001)

00:50:22 - Boy (2010)

00:51:20 - Girl Asleep (2015)

00:52:08 - Despicable Me (2010)

00:55:05 - Airplane (1980)

00:57:08 - Carrie (1976)

00:58:21 - Love, Rosie (2014)

00:59:21 - The Mask (1994)

01:00:14 - Dope (2015)

01:01:13 - Rock of Ages (2012)

01:02:21 - Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

01:04:14 - Monthy Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

01:04:19 - Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

01:05:12 - Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

01:06:07 - (500) Days of Summer (2009)

01:08:23 - Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

01:10:03 - The Muppets (2011)

01:11:00 - Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

01:10:03 - The Muppets (2011)

01:14:00 - Love Actually (2003)

01:16:05 - Mean Girls (2004)

01:19:01 - Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

01:20:15 - Scarface (1983)

01:22:05 - Grease (1978)

01:24:22 - It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

01:26:13 - The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

01:28:13 - Young Frankenstein (1974)

01:29:16 - Get Smart (2008)

01:31:07 - My Fair Lady (1964)

01:32:12 - An Education (2009)

01:33:21- The Deer Hunter (1978)

01:35:06 - The Sitter (2011)

01:35:22 - Up in the Air (2009)

01:36:20 - Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

01:38:10 - This Is the End (2013)

01:39:13 - Hairspray (2007)

01:40:07 - Dumb and Dumber (1994)

01:41:03 - The Way Way Back (2013)

01:42:01 - Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

01:43:05 - Blazing Saddles (1974)

01:44:05 - Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

01:45:18 - Shrek 2 (2004)

01:47:18 - Flashdance (1983)

01:48:14 - The Gold Rush (1925)

01:49:10 - Magic Mike (2012)

01:50:20 - Viva Las Vegas (1964)

01:52:00 - Clerks II (2006)

01:53:10 - The Great Gatsby (2013)

01:54:08 - Eagle vs Shark (2007)

01:57:06 - What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

01:58:15 - The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

01:59:17 - Rush Hour (1998)

02:01:17 - Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

02:02:17 - The Last Picture Show (1971)

02:03:18 - Band of Outsiders (1964)

02:05:23 - Weird Science (1985)

02:07:15 - Reservoir Dogs (1992)

02:09:10 - Batman (1989)

02:12:20 - Mommy (2014)

02:14:00 - Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

02:15:20 - Hot Shots! (1991)

02:16:14 - Borat (2006)

02:17:14 - American Beauty (1999)

02:18:18 - Moonlight (2016)

02:19:14 - Superbad (2007)

02:20:15 - Garden State (2004)

02:21:15 - Royal Wedding (1951)

02:22:17 - The Big Lebowski (1998)

02:24:07 - My Week with Marilyn (2011)

02:25:13 - Mary Poppins (1964)

02:27:20 - Kickboxer (1989)

02:29:07 - The Blues Brothers (1980)

02:30:21 - Bring it On (2000)

02:32:07 - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

02:33:17 - Trainspotting (1996)

02:34:10 - American Gangster (2007)

02:34:21 - Don Jon (2013)

02:35:14 - Morris from America (2016)

02:36:08 - Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

02:36:08 - A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

02:39:06 - Striptease (1996)

02:40:10 - Donnie Darko (2001)

02:41:04 - The Pink Panther (1963)

02:41:20 - Monsters University (2013)

02:43:09 - Everybody Wants Some (2016)

02:44:18 - Clueless (1995)

02:46:13 - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

02:47:04 - All That Jazz (1979)

02:48:04 - The Princess Diaries (2001)

02:50:16 - Sing Street (2016)

02:52:12 - While We’re Young (2014)

02:54:06 - Once Bitten (1985)

02:55:15 - Lost River (2014)

02:56:10 - Ruby Sparks (2012)

02:58:03 - Saturday Night Fever (1977)

02:59:05 - Boogie Nights (1997)

03:00:15 - The Reunion 2: The Funeral (2014)

03:01:11 - American Hustle (2013)

03:02:20 - Ex Machina (2015)

03:04:10 - The Losers (2010)

03:06:00 - Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

03:06:20 - The Best Man Holiday (2013)

03:07:10 - Step Up Revolution (2012)

03:08:19 - Shaun of the Dead (2004)

03:10:07 - Billy Elliot (2000)

03:11:22 - Funny Face (1957)

03:14:09 - King of New York (1990)

03:15:10 - Mistress America (2015)

03:16:13 - The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

03:17:15 - Save the Last Dance (2001)

03:18:14 - Elf (2003)

03:19:03 - The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

03:19:16 - Little Sister (2016)

03:21:00 - The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

03:22:04 - Moon (2009)

03:23:12 - The Boondock Saints (1999)

03:26:03 - Monsters University (2013)

03:27:08 - Let’s Be Cops (2014)

03:29:09 - The World’s End (2013)

03:31:04 - Fun Size (2012)

03:32:10 - Spider-Man 3 (2007)

03:34:14 - To Die For (1995)

03:35:16 - The Breakfast Club (1985)

03:37:11 - The Goonies (1985)

03:38:11 - The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

03:39:15 - Blue Valentine (2010)

03:41:01 - Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

03:42:22 - Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

03:43:16 - 13 Going On 30 (2004)

03:44:04 - Wedding Crashers (2005)

03:44:15 - Pitch Perfect (2012)

03:45:07 - Wayne’s World (1992)

03:45:21 - Milk (2008)

03:46:11 - Something Borrowed (2011)

03:47:17 - School of Rock (2003)

03:48:16 - Hitch (2005)

03:49:19 - The Kings of Summer (2013)

03:50:17 - Bling Ring (2013)

03:52:10 - Neighbors (2014)

03:53:04 - Animal House (1978)

03:54:07 - A League of Their Own (1992)

03:55:19 - Hot Rod (2007)

03:57:11 - Zoolander (2001)

03:58:17 - Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

03:59:17 - The Great Dictator (1940)

04:01:23 - Charlie’s Angels (2000)

04:03:03 - Romeo + Juliet (1996)

04:04:05 - Kill Your Darlings (2013)

04:05:02 - Amadeus (1984)

04:06:00 - Days of Heaven (1978)

04:10:07 - Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

04:12:15 - The Lobster (2015)

04:14:01 - House of Flying Daggers (2004)

04:15:13 - Big Night (1996)

04:17:23 - Band of Robbers (2015)

04:19:06 - Almost Famous (2000)

04:21:03 - Rain Man (1988)

04:22:15 - Brooklyn (2015)

04:23:10 - The Imitation Game (2014)

04:24:09 - Moulin Rouge! (2001)

04:27:13 - Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

04:29:12 - The Godfather (1972)

04:30:11 - The Sound of Music (1965)

04:32:01 - Dirty Dancing (1987)

04:34:08 - Focus (2015)

04:35:10 - The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

04:36:08 - Zombieland (2009)

04:37:07 - Beauty and the Beast (1991)

04:40:23 - The Addams Family (1991)

04:44:06 - Beetlejuice (1988)

04:47:02 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

04:49:12 - Like Crazy (2011)

04:50:09 - End of Watch (2012)

04:51:14 - Pretty in Pink (1986)

04:53:03 - House Party (1990)

04:54:05 - Along Came Polly (2004)

04:55:23 - Some Like it Hot (1959)

04:56:23 - Reality Bites (1994)

04:59:01 - Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

05:01:10 - Obvious Child (2014)

05:02:14 - The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015)

05:04:14 - Lost in Translation (2003)

05:06:03 - Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

05:06:18 - A Clockwork Orange (1974)

05:08:14 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

05:09:16 - Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

05:10:18 - Penguins of Madagascar (2014)

05:11:19 - European Vacation (1985)

05:13:02 - The Wizard of Oz (1939)

05:15:04 - The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

05:16:12 - Three Amigos (1986)

05:18:00 - The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)

05:18:23 - A Night At The Roxbury (1998)

05:20:01 - Coming To America (1988)

05:20:21 - Cinderella (2015)

05:21:17 - About Time (2013)

05:23:16 - Groundhog Day (1993)

05:25:03 - Chef (2014)

05:26:07 - Somewhere (2010)

05:28:08 - Office Space (1999)

05:30:03 - Shall We Dance (2004)

05:31:04 - The Artist (2011)

05:31:18 - The Red Shoes (1948)

05:33:21 - Strictly Ballroom (1992)

05:36:07 - The Turning Point (1977)

05:37:05 - Do the Right Thing (1989)

05:38:03 - Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

05:39:09 - Chicago (2002)

05:41:09 - Footloose (1984)

05:43:17 - When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

05:45:02 - The Producers (1967)

05:46:05 - The Full Monty (1997)

05:47:20 - Back to the Future Part III (1990)

05:49:00 - Dances with Wolves (1990)

05:50:07 - Hook (1991)

05:50:22 - Short Circuit (1986)

05:51:13 - Pulp Fiction (1994)

05:53:08 - Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

05:53:22 - Dazed and Confused (1993)

05:54:20 - From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

05:55:16 - My Golden Days (2015)

05:56:12 - Midnight in Paris (2013)

05:58:21 - The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)

05:59:12 - The Intouchables (2011)

06:00:10 - Les Misérables (2012)

06:01:08 - A Royal Affair (2012)

06:02:11 - King Kong (2005)

06:03:17 - Happy Feet (2006)

06:04:20 - Tangled (2010)

06:06:01 - Tarzan (1999)

06:07:01 - Top Hat (1935)

06:08:01 - Hail, Caesar (2016)

06:09:05 - Center Stage (2000)

06:10:03 - American Pie (1999)

06:11:10 - A Hard Days Night (1964)

06:12:01 - 45 Years (2015)

06:12:15 - La Dolce Vita (1960)

06:13:10 - O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

06:14:00 - West Side Story (1961)

06:14:20 - Straight Outta Compton (2015)

06:15:12 - La La Land (2016)

06:16:12 - Her (2013)

06:17:08 - Being John Malkovich (1999)

06:18:03 - Flashdance (1983)

06:19:01 - Barton Fink (1991)

06:19:22 - The Artist (2011)

06:24:09 - Casablanca (1942)

06:26:13 - Sunset Boulevard (1950)

06:27:15 - Black Book (2006)

06:28:08 - Edward Scissorhands (1990)

06:29:17 - Labyrinth (1986)

06:31:18 - Short Term 12 (2013)

06:33:18 - When Marnie Was There (2014)

06:36:18 - Before Sunrise (1995)

06:37:15 - Scent of a Woman (1992)

06:39:14 - Sabrina (1954)

06:40:20 - Lolita (1962)

06:41:23 - Schindler’s List (1993)

06:42:14 - Gangs of New York (2002)

06:43:16 - Black Swan (2010)

06:44:23 - Pride and Prejudice (2005)

06:46:15 - Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

06:48:06 - Up (2009)

06:49:23 - One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

06:51:05 - Out of Africa (1985)

06:52:22 - Jackie (2016)

06:54:15 - Rushmore (1998)

Igor Stravinsky Remembers the “Riotous” Premiere of His Rite of Spring in 1913: “They Were Very Shocked. They Were Naive and Stupid People.”

It can be a little hard to take the word “riot” seriously when applied to a contentious ballet performance, given how regularly we now see police with machine guns, shields, and tanks rolling down city streets to overpower protesting citizens. But that is the word that has come down to us for the fracas that greeted the debut of Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. The idea of a riot seems all the more incongruous, and funny, when considered in the light of Jean Cocteau’s description of the crowd:

The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.

This Parisian smart set came together on that evening of May 29th expecting “something potentially outrageous,” writes The Telegraph’s classical critic Ivan Hewett. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes had previously “entranced and shocked Paris.” Stravinsky was acquiring a reputation as a musical provocateur, having built his score for 1910’s The Firebird around the dissonant “Devil’s Interval.” Nonetheless, as the Rocketboom video below, “The Riot of Spring,” explains, audiences packed into the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had no preparation for what they would see, and hear, when the curtain arose.

And what was that? A “high, almost strangled bassoon melody,” Hewett writes, “soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds” set to “pulsating rhythms.” Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s dancers “seemed pulled down to earth. Their strange, jerky movements and awkward poses defied every canon of gracefulness.” The audience reacted immediately, shouting and attacking one another: “canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theater.” Stravinsky himself remembers the theatergoers reactions with disdain in a short interview excerpt at the top.

“The storm broke,” he says, once the curtain opened on a group of “knock-kneed… Lolitas jumping up and down." The audience "came for Scheherazade or Cleopatra, and they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stupid people.” Did Stravinsky really not anticipate the degree of unrest his weird, dissonant ballet might provoke? It seems not. He hoped it would be a bigger hit than his widely-praised Petrushka of three years earlier. “From all indications,” he had written to set designer Nicholas Roerich, “I can see that this piece is bound to ‘emerge’ in a way that rarely happens.” This proved true, but not at all in the way he meant it.

For his part, writes Hewett, Diaghilev “was hoping for something more than an emergence. He wanted a scandal.” James Wolcott, in his account of the evening, Wild in the Seats, argues that the Russian impresario had “a genius for publicity that wouldn’t be matched until the advent of Andy Warhol and the pop cult of celebrity.” He knew he needed to rattle the “jaded elegants,” who “weren’t going to be stimulated by the same melting, yearning pantomime in pointe shoes.” The Rite of Spring premiere remains the most infamous scandal in the history of ballet to this day.

But while the sophisticates battled it out in the aisles, screaming over the orchestra, pulling down each other’s top hats, it’s said, and challenging each other to duels, a few spectators, Cocteau included, sat entranced by the performance. The work, he later wrote, “is, and will remain, a masterpiece: a symphony impregnated with wild pathos, with earth in the throes of birth, noises of farm and camp, little melodies that come to us out of the depths of the centuries, the panting of cattle, profound convulsions of nature, prehistoric georgics.”

See the opening movements performed above by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, and imagine yourself in the midst of Paris’s highest society convulsing in a riotous outcry. What was so upsetting? “Perhaps the riot was a sign of disquiet,” Hewett speculates, “a feeling that that the world had lost its moorings, and that barbarism was about to be let loose in the streets.” According to eyewitnesses, some disturbed spectators even called in the police. You can learn much more about this fascinating history at the free Harvard edX course, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: Modernism, Ballet, and Riots.”

Related Content:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation

Stravinsky’s “Illegal” Arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner” (1944)

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravinsky Conduct The Firebird, the Ballet Masterpiece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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