Stravinsky, Nijinsky and the riotous premiere of The Rite of Spring

It should have been a triumph. The premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on 29 May 1913 brought together the then up-and-coming composer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe company and its star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, who would choreograph the piece. Even the venue, the luxurious Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, was new.

There was some disquiet, Stravinsky recalled, as soon as the music started. It was shockingly new. Jean Cocteau, who was in the audience, described it as “music one listens to with one’s face in one’s hands”. He meant it as a compliment; many that evening shared the sentiment but not the enthusiasm.

All hell didn’t break loose until the curtain went up on what Stravinsky, still smarting at the memory decades later, described as “a group of knock-kneed and long-haired Lolitas jumping up and down”.

It wasn’t just that much of the audience was appalled. “People laughed, booed, hissed, imitated animal noises,” Cocteau said. Then the aesthetes started shouting abuse at the railers. “The uproar degenerated into a free fight,” he said. He remembered seeing a countess in her box, diadem awry, standing red-faced, shouting, “It’s the first time for sixty years that anyone’s dared to make a fool of me!”

Backstage, Stravinsky was in a fury. Diaghilev was flicking the house lights on and off in an ineffectual attempt to quell the audience. The orchestra – the largest Stravinsky would ever write for – couldn’t be heard over the uproar. Nijinsky was standing on a chair in the wings, Stravinsky recalled, beating time with his hands shouting numbers at the dancers like a coxswain.

But numbers, Stravinsky came to think, were part of the problem. Nijinsky may have been a great dancer, but was he a choreographer? Stravinsky wasn’t sure. Even after months of rehearsals – perhaps 120 of them – the dance had little connection to the music, Stravinsky thought. “I will count to forty while you play,” Nijinsky reassured him, “and we will see where we come out.” Stravinsky was far from reassured. The dancers followed Nijinsky’s beat, not the music. Nijinsky counted in Russian, in which many higher numbers are polysyllabic. In fast-tempo passages he couldn’t count quickly enough, and neither could the dancers. They called the rehearsals ‘arithmetic classes’.

It didn’t help, Stravinsky recalled, still smarting decades later, that Nijinsky ignored his own ideas. The composer complained that for the opening section, ‘The Auguries of Spring’, in which he had envisioned “a row of almost motionless dancers”, Nijinsky choreographed “a big jumping match”.

There were two more performances in Paris and three in London. Nijinsky’s ballet has never been seen since.

This is an extended version of a piece first appeared in the May 2022 issue of History Today. (Image ©CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Like this? You can read more of Mathew’s History Today Months Past pieces here.

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