How Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring Incited a Riot? An Animated Introduction

There was a time when a bal­let could start a riot — specif­i­cal­ly, the night of May 29th, 1913. The place was Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the bal­let was The Rite of Spring, com­posed by Igor Stravin­sky for the Bal­lets Rus­es com­pa­ny. Pop­u­lar his­to­ry has remem­bered this debut per­for­mance as too bold, too dar­ing, too avant-garde for its gen­teel audi­ence to han­dle — and so, with the bour­geois duly épaté, we can freely appre­ci­ate Stravin­sky’s rad­i­cal work from our posi­tion of 21st-cen­tu­ry sophis­ti­ca­tion. But whether The Rite of Spring incit­ed a riot, a “near-riot” (as some source describe it), or mere­ly a wave of dis­sat­is­fac­tion, what aspects of its art were respon­si­ble?

May 29th, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées comes alive again in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, which exam­ines all the ways The Rite of Spring broke vio­lent­ly with the bal­let form as it had estab­lished itself in the 19th cen­tu­ry. Les­son cre­ator Iseult Gille­spie (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for her explana­to­ry work on every­thing from Shake­speare and Guer­ni­ca to Fri­da Kahlo and Haru­ki Muraka­mi) writes of its “harsh music, jerky danc­ing, and uncan­ny stag­ing,” all in ser­vice of a high­ly un-gen­teel Pagan premise that “set audi­ences on edge and shat­tered the con­ven­tions of clas­si­cal music.”

Among Stravin­sky’s musi­cal provo­ca­tions — or rather, “for­mal exper­i­ments,” — Gille­spie names “syn­co­pa­tion, or irreg­u­lar rhythm,” “atonal­i­ty, or the lack of a sin­gle key,” and “the pres­ence of mul­ti­ple time sig­na­tures,” as well as the inclu­sion of aspects of the Russ­ian folk music that was Stravin­sky’s cul­tur­al inher­i­tance. Along with the music, already star­tling enough, came visu­al design by Nicholas Roerich, a painter-philoso­pher “obsessed with pre­his­toric times” and pro­fes­sion­al­ly con­cerned with human sac­ri­fice and ancient tomb exca­va­tion.

Wear­ing Roerich’s awk­ward­ly-hang­ing peas­ant gar­ments in front of his “vivid back­drops of primeval nature full of jagged rocks, loom­ing trees, and night­mar­ish col­ors,” the bal­let’s dancers per­formed steps by Vaslav Nijin­sky, whose sense of rig­or brought him to cre­ate dances “to rethink the roots of move­ment itself.” His chore­og­ra­phy “con­tort­ed tra­di­tion­al bal­let, to both the awe and hor­ror of his audi­ence” — but then, that pos­si­bly overde­ter­mined awe and hor­ror could have arisen from sev­er­al num­ber of artis­tic sources at once. The Rite of Spring’s ten­sion and urgency still today reflects the his­tor­i­cal moment of its com­po­si­tion, “the cusp of both the first world war and the Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tion,” and we could also take the ear­ly reac­tion to its inno­va­tions as a reflec­tion of its cre­ators’ genius — or per­haps those first view­ers, as Stravin­sky him­self put it, were sim­ply “naïve and stu­pid peo­ple.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Hear The Rite of Spring Con­duct­ed by Igor Stravin­sky Him­self: A Vin­tage Record­ing from 1929

Hear 46 Ver­sions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 3 Min­utes: A Clas­sic Mashup

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

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

The Night When Char­lie Park­er Played for Igor Stravin­sky (1951)

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.

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