The 20th century’s leading ballet composer
“The first night of the ballet was the most astonishing event. …At the first sounds of the music, shouts and hissing started in the audience, and it was difficult for us on the stage to hear the music, the more so as part of the audience began to applaud in an attempt to drown the hissing. We all desperately tried to keep time without being able to hear the rhythm clearly. …And yet now there is no doubt that musically and choreographically, a masterpiece had been created that night.” —Dame Marie Rambert, Ballets Russes dancer (1912–13)
The scene that Marie Rambert describes in her 1972 autobiography was the premiere of The Rite of Spring by the Ballets Russes on May 29, 1913, in Paris. The discordant music by Igor Stravinsky and experimental choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky were revolutionary for their time, resulting in a scandal on opening night. In the interest of advancing their respective artforms, both composer and choreographer ignored conventions that until then had governed how a ballet should look and sound. “No previous score so thoroughly challenged the fundamental concept of rhythm and meter that had held sway in standard, recurring patterns over the last 300 years,” says Skidmore College music professor Charles Joseph. “Stravinsky liberated music from this history and opened the door to the world of modernism.”
The Rite of Spring is just one score among many that Stravinsky created specifically for ballet. His collaboration with choreographer George Balanchine spanned over 40 years and two continents, and together they produced almost two dozen ballets. This month, New York City Ballet opens its season with a two-week festival celebrating their great partnership that helped shape 20th-century dance.
Born in 1882 near St. Petersburg, Stravinsky showed an early interest in music. As a toddler, he performed a song for his parents that he had heard sung by women in his town. Stravinsky’s parents did not want him to pursue a musical career, even though his father was a renowned opera singer. They preferred that he study law instead, for reasons of status and income. But Stravinsky overcame their objections and studied under another legendary Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Stravinsky left St. Petersburg for Paris in 1910 to further develop his musical talent, given Paris’ more vibrant artistic scene. Additionally, Stravinsky had been commissioned by Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev to create a new ballet score. When The Firebird—a narrative ballet based on a Russian legend, choreographed by Michel Fokine—premiered in 1910, Stravinsky moved to Paris to oversee its debut.
Stravinsky composed often for the Ballets Russes over the next 20 years, in collaboration with its choreographers, until the sudden death of Diaghilev in 1929. Other notable ballets produced during this period include Petrouchka by Michel Fokine (1911) and Les Noces by Bronislava Nijinska (1923)—both with themes drawing from Russian rituals and customs. Rite also had Russian roots: Its harshness was inspired by the natural force of ice breaking up along a Russian river in spring.
Diaghilev introduced Stravinsky to Balanchine in 1925, and in 1928, the two collaborated on Apollon Musagète—now known simply as Apollo. This score heralded a new age for the composer; it favored classicism, not ethnicity. Inspired by classical music and ancient Greek mythology, Apollo is Stravinsky and Balanchine’s first neoclassical masterpiece.
During this collaboration, Stravinsky found Balanchine’s artistic ideas very much in sync with his own, and he was grateful to have found a choreographer who could skillfully handle his music’s complexities. “Balanchine, as ballet master, had arranged the dances exactly as I had wished,” wrote Stravinsky in his autobiography. “His beautiful choreography clearly expressed my meaning.”
Given a truly amicable and fruitful partnership, the duo would work together often after Stravinsky came to America in 1939, following the outbreak of World War II. Balanchine had already immigrated to the U.S. to set up the School of American Ballet (at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein) when he commissioned Stravinsky for a new score. Their neoclassical work Orpheus premiered in 1948, and its acclaim helped transform Ballet Society—Balanchine and Kirstein’s fledgling company—into the established New York City Ballet.
By the time of Stravinsky’s death in New York City in 1971, he and Balanchine had created more than 20 ballets together, many of which remain in NYCB’s repertory today—including Agon (1957), Apollo and Orpheus. Balanchine remained steadfast in his endorsement of the deceased composer’s work and choreographed to 13 more of Stravinsky’s pieces. Many of these, such as Symphony in Three Movements and Violin Concerto, were created for NYCB’s Stravinsky Festival in 1972. “Our movements have to be performed in the composer’s time,” Balanchine said in an interview before the festival. “That’s why I call Stravinsky ‘an architect of time.’ His music provides the dancer’s floor. It’s the reason for us to move. Without the music, we don’t want to move.” DT
100 Years of The Rite of Spring
Almost a century after its premiere, the controversial work has become one of the most beloved of Stravinsky’s scores. Many notable choreographers have used his great work, including Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, Jorma Elo and Glen Tetley.
- 1940: Disney included The Rite of Spring in its animated musical film Fantasia.
- 1959: Maurice Béjart’s production premiered, later toured internationally with his Ballet of the 20th Century and has since been staged on other companies.
- 1975: Pina Bausch choreographed The Rite of Spring for her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. You can see excerpts from this work in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, Pina.
- 1987: The Joffrey Ballet performed a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original choreography, staged by Millicent Hodson.
- 2013: Houston Ballet will premiere a new Rite by artistic director Stanton Welch. Like Stravinsky, Welch has tapped into his own heritage by commissioning indigenous Australian artist Rosella Namok to create the set. But Welch admits, “When I shut my eyes, it’s Fantasia I see.”
- 2013: Carolina Performing Arts has scheduled a “Rite of Spring at 100” celebration. In January, choreographer Bill T. Jones and theater director Anne Bogart will collaborate to create a full-length work that aims to deconstruct The Rite of Spring.
Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. 101 Stories of the Great Ballets. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.
Ballet Russes. 118 min. 2005. Zeitgeist Films. New York.
Jordan, Stephanie. “The Demons in a Database: Interrogating ‘Stravinsky the Global Dancer.” Dance Research 22, no. 1 (2004): 57-83.
Joseph, Charles M. Stravinsky’s Ballets. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
Tony Palmer’s Film about Stravinsky: Once at a Border … 166 min. 1982. Distributed by Kultur, West Long Branch, NJ.
Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California—Riverside.
Photo by Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts; The Rite of Spring photo courtesy of the Dance Magazine Archives