Best of the Mag: History's Wildest Ballet Riot

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Editor's Note: To promote the mental_floss Holiday Subscription Special, I've asked co-founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur to select some of their favorite mag articles from 2008. Today's story comes from the '101 Masterpieces: A Guide to Works You Should Know' series. And if it puts you in a subscription-giving mood, here are the details.

By Elizabeth Lunday, from the July-August issue

The most infamous riot in the history of the performing arts began with the violins in Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." But more remarkable than the fistfight was the way the piece revolutionized classical music and ballet.

On the night of May 29, 1913, an elegant Parisian crowd assembled for the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's eagerly anticipated new ballet, "The Rite of Spring." The opening seemed promising, but then the violins kicked in with a pulsing chord so dissonant that it made spectators wince. As the orchestra continued, the audience hissed and booed. They rose to their feet and shouted—some defending the music, but most denouncing it. People began whacking each other with canes, umbrellas, and, before long, bare fists. Stravinsky's musical revolution had arrived.

Prelude to "The Rite"

By one account, the idea for "The Rite of Spring" came to Stravinsky in a dream. He envisioned a pagan rebirth ritual, with people throwing themselves before vengeful gods. Rather than a cheerful celebration of springtime, it was a dark and superstitious rite. To compose music appropriate for such a vision, Stravinsky tossed aside convention and broke new ground in rhythm and harmony. He constructed atonal chords never heard before and developed a meter so complex that he struggled to accurately record it on paper. At times in the piece, parts of the orchestra actually seem to be playing against each other.

Stravinsky first performed "The Rite of Spring" for ballet director Sergei Diaghilev and orchestra conductor Pierre Monteux. Both men were shocked and overwhelmed. Later, Monteux wrote that he didn't understand one note of it and wanted to flee the room. Nevertheless, plans for the ballet got under way. Diaghilev entrusted the choreography to dance phenom Vaslav Nijinsky, whose steps proved just as inspired as the music.

The first signs of trouble came during rehearsals. The ballerinas complained that Nijinsky's flat-footed, straight-knee jumps jarred them to their bones, and the musicians struggled to keep up with Stravinsky's galloping pace. At one point, after practicing a particularly dissonant section, the orchestra couldn't help but burst into nervous laughter.

The Least Quiet of Riots

On opening night, the scene was chaotic. Only minutes into the performance, the audience's reaction was so loud that the ballerinas couldn't hear the music. Horrified, Stravinsky fled backstage to find Nijinsky standing on a chair desperately calling out the time for the dancers. Meanwhile, Diaghilev was frantically turning on and off the house lights in an attempt to pacify the crowd. By intermission, the police had arrived, and the theater manager took to the stage, begging the audience to calm down.

The truth is that the spectators were reacting as much to the dancing as to the music. "The Rite of Spring" contained no elegant arabesques or ballerinas in tutus. Instead, the dancers moved more with their hips than their feet, evoking something raw and primitive. What's more, they dressed as pagan tribesmen, wearing rough tunics and stylized masks on their faces. It was the antithesis of classical ballet. In one scene, the dancers encircle a girl who stands transfixed with fear. Tribal elders swarm around this "chosen one" until she begins to leap frantically into the air. Her dance becomes more and more frenzied until she finally collapses dead—a ritual sacrifice to spring.

After the Revolution

For several more nights, Diaghilev and Nijinsky performed "The Rite" to outraged Parisians. Stravinsky, however, grew too sick to attend. Five days after the ballet's premiere, he fell dangerously ill with typhoid fever. But the following March, the piece was played again in Paris as an orchestral work (without the ballet). This time, instead of rioting, the audience cheered and then carried the composer aloft on their shoulders.

These days, "The Rite of Spring" is more likely to elicit polite applause. The innovations that made it revolutionary nearly a century ago are staples of dance and music today. In the world of ballet, "The Rite" introduced the idea that dance didn't have to be refined to be significant, and Nijinsky's choreography deeply influenced modern dance pioneers, such as Martha Graham. In the realm of music, the impact was just as profound, advancing the notion that abrasive music could also be beautiful. The genius of the piece is that it contains all the basic principles of a successful composition—compelling melodies, dynamic rhythms, contrast, repetition—while also pushing them to extremes. After the scandalous riot, it only took a few short years for "The Rite of Spring" to be widely embraced. By the 1920s, it was being performed in the United States, and by the 1940s, it had become background music in a Disney movie. By expanding the boundaries of acceptability, Stravinsky made room for all the dissonant music of the 20th century, from Arnold Schoenberg to Sonic Youth, and changed the definition of music forever.

The Mouse & The Musician

In 1940, "The Rite of Spring" took a big leap from avant-garde to mainstream when Stravinsky let Walt Disney use the piece for an animated movie. In the score of Fantasia, a truncated version of "The Rite" plays during the scenes depicting the beginning of life on Earth, from the primordial ooze to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Years later, Stravinsky wrote critically about Disney, claiming the film company had pressured him into licensing the rights to the music. He went on to describe the performance as "a dangerous misunderstanding" of his composition. Disney representatives were baffled and offended. In response, they released photos of Stravinsky in the studio holding up animation mockups and smiling.

Want to see/hear the classical piece that caused a riot? Here's a recreation of the original from the Joffrey Ballet:

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December 8, 2008 - 3:00am
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