Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Search for Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (Danish Broadcasting, Czechoslovak TV, BBC, PBS, 1990)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the world premiere performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Charles and I celebrated by watching The Search for Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” an hour-long special from PBS I videotaped in 1990 when it was first aired, which consisted of a half-hour documentary about how Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite of Spring, and Nicholas Roerich’s original stage designs, were reconstructed from whatever fragmentary evidence was available, followed by a full performance of the reconstructed ballet. The prime mover behind the reconstruction was ballet-meister Robert Joffrey, founder of the New York-based Joffrey Ballet, but their principal source was Marie Rambert, the last survivor of the company that performed The Rite of Spring at its infamous first performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. Rambert was a close associate of Nijinsky — she admitted in the archival interviews shown in the program that she had an intense crush on him, which she kept hidden because Nijinsky and producer Serge Diaghilev were living together as a Gay couple, but when Nijinsky and Diaghilev broke up both professionally and personally, and Nijinsky married a woman on the rebound, she not surprisingly was bitter on the ground that if Nijinsky was going to turn straight it should have been for her.

She also was a close associate of Émile Jacques-Dalcroze, the founder of eurythmics. Eurythmics was basically a style of dance in which there was a close relationship between music and movement — a note of a specific duration corresponded to a specific movement — and though Nijinsky didn’t go whole-hog into eurythmics when he did the original choreography for The Rite of Spring, he did attempt to match his movements precisely to Stravinsky’s score, bar by bar, note by note. The Rite of Spring is a story ballet set in pre-Christian Russia and, like Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” it’s about a farming community which believes that every spring they have to choose a young virgin and sacrifice her to ensure that they have a good crop that year. Of course, this being a ballet, the way she’s supposed to be sacrificed is that she is compelled to dance herself to death. It reflected the Russian origins of the four principals — Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Roerich and Diaghilev — and while many of Diaghilev’s previous Ballet Russe productions had been cosmopolitan (before he hooked up with Stravinsky, Diaghilev’s most popular and enduring productions had been Les Sylphides, an orchestral score mashed up from some of Chopin’s big piano works, and Afternoon of a Faun, based on the previously written prelude by Debussy), Stravinsky’s presence in his operation and the success of his previous works for Diaghilev, The Firebird and Petrouchka (both based on Russian folk tales), steered them in the direction of a sort of naturalistic primitivism. The reconstruction was accomplished under Joffrey’s auspices (Joffrey had got his start as a choreographer with Rambert’s ballet company in London in the 1950’s) mostly by choreographer Millicent Hodson and her husband, designer Kenneth Archer, and the evidence they had to go on was mostly the photographs of the original production — with the dancers posing in slants and wearing batik-like costumes designed to look like hand-painted homespun — along with notes and sketches by various artists who’d witnessed the original, and a copy of an original score of the Rite in which Rambert herself had notated some of the choreography. (Rambert had sold the original during a time when she badly needed money; she had kept a copy but it was only at the very end of the process that it came to light and supplied Hodson with the last set of clues she needed.)

Granted that there’s no way of knowing how close any of Hodson’s work, executed here by a well-drilled set of dancers led by Beatriz Rodriguez as the sacrificial victim (though this is decidedly an ensemble piece and not a star vehicle the way, say, Swan Lake is), to what the Paris audience saw — or didn’t see — on May 29, 1913 (that early it’s highly unlikely anyone sneaked in a movie camera and filmed any of it surreptitiously the way some fans did with Broadway shows in the 1930’s), but The Rite of Spring in this version remains a bizarre and fascinating piece and it’s easy to see what provoked the Paris audience to intense expressions of disapproval. (The legend was that there was an actual riot in the theatre, but Ivan Hewitt recently wrote an article for the BBC Web site, available at, debunking that, pointing out that the performance actually ran until the ballet’s end — if there’d been a riot the police would have closed the theatre and escorted everyone out — though through much of it the yelling from people in the audience who didn’t like what they were hearing and liked what they were seeing even less was so loud Nijinsky stood in the wings and barked out rehearsal numbers to the dancers, so they could keep to his choreography and stay in synch to the music even though they couldn’t actually hear it over the yelling.) One person in the documentary portion made the point that while Nijinsky as a dancer was noted for his command of the language of classical ballet, in his few attempts at choreographing ballets for others he almost totally ignored that language. This Rite seems far closer to modern dance than anything we usually think of as ballet, with the dancers moving in tight synch to the music, making aggressive, jerky motions in stylized patterns (a couple of times they group themselves into a circle and move their arms in and out of it — if the people filming the ballet had raised their camera for an overhead shot it would have looked like a Busby Berkeley number set to a more musically sophisticated score), clapping and stamping their feet in time to the music, and wearing baggy costumes that concealed the forms of their bodies instead of the tight-fitting clothes of traditional ballet.

When I first saw this show I was startled at how different the experience was from the one time I’d seen The Rite of Spring danced professionally — in Oakland in 1977, in a production by John Pasqualetti, who was known for the high sexual content of his ballets. He didn’t disappoint in The Rite — his dancers wore body stockings and made contact with each other, girl-on-boy and sometimes boy-on-boy as well (my date for the evening was my first boyfriend and naturally he was especially interested in the Gay aspects!) — but it was also danced far more smoothly than this version. For all the radical sexual content (maybe not that radical for the Bay Area in 1977!) Pasqualetti’s Rite was a far more conventionally “balletic” production than Hodson’s dans Nijinsky, which even now seems positively primitive in both senses of the word: literally so, as befits the subject matter of the Rite; and also in terms of the style of movement, the way the dancers relate to each other and the stylization of the piece, the way the dancers are not allowed to show off the beauty of their own bodies. The reconstructed Rite has been danced in other places and times, and even when companies don’t use all of Hodson’s choreography (which she has copyrighted, so they’d have to pay her a royalty) they’ve clearly been influenced by the restoration to make the movements of the Rite jerkier, more primitive, more physically intense and less ballet-oriented. This is a fascinating program that doesn’t deserve its obscurity; it was co-produced by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, Czechoslovak TV (remember Czechoslovakia?), the BBC and PBS’s New York affiliate, WNET, but it’s not listed on or on PBS’s own Web site, and it’s virtually impossible to obtain a copy now: offers a download, but only of the actual performance of the ballet, not the equally fascinating half-hour documentary on the reconstruction that precedes it.