ON MAY 29, 1913, at Théatre des-Champs Élyseés in Paris, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes presented the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with choreography by Nijinsky and design and costumes by Nicolas Roerich.
The event was keenly anticipated and the theatre was packed out, despite ticket prices being double the usual rate. Yet as the curtain rose, and the performance unfolded, the avant-garde nature of both the music and choreography provoked an uproar among the audience. Objects were thrown at the orchestra and the commotion became so great it was impossible to hear the music onstage.
Nijinsky had to shout out the step numbers to the dancers and some 40 audience members were ejected from the theatre. It was, by any measure, a turbulent introduction.
And yet, within a few years Stravinsky’s score had become fully accepted within the repertoire and is now acknowledged as one of the key musical works of the 20th century. The ballet also has been staged many times and in this, its centenary year, Ireland’s acclaimed Fabulous Beast Dance Company is bringing its exhilarating new production of The Rite of Spring to the Galway Arts Festival.
Ahead of their arts festival visit, Fabulous Beast’s artistic director Michael Keegan Dolan took time to talk about his approach to this iconic work, including the challenges and rewards he finds in the piece.
“A lot of the challenges are technical because it’s complex enough musically to provoke a few questions,” he tells me. “As for the opportunities, by working on this piece that’s a hundred years old and was created by masters, you connect to a cultural lineage, and to the psyche of Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky and Nicolas Roerich, and you become richer and fuller in the attempt to wrestle with this piece of work.
“The other thing people always say to me is that it’s been choreographed 200 times so it must be awful to choreograph it again, but I never found that an issue. I love the ideas that inspired the genesis of the piece a hundred years ago, I love them as much today as the gentlemen who made the piece.
“I love the idea of connecting with your ancestors and the importance of that energy and of the necessity for change and for sacrifice to allow change to happen. I think they are really exciting ideas.”
Young and old
The theme of sacrifice is central to the work. In the original ballet a young woman dances herself to death for the tribal elders but Keegan-Dolan offers a more nuanced take on this primal drama.
“I think our understanding of sacrifice can be a bit distorted,” he notes. “We all know everyone is terrified of dying but in Ireland we have that great tradition of having a wake and spending time with the dead body and perhaps that has benefited us in coping with the reality of death. So when you talk about a sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death everyone assumes this is a terrible thing, but another way of perceiving it is that death is not the most terrible thing that can happen to us.
“The idea of sacrifice is giving up something to get something better so it’s a positive thing, so something good comes from it, if spring doesn’t come we’re going to have perpetual winter. When you think about our fear of change, would you want to live in perpetual winter or summer and the answer is ‘No’.
“I was trying to put a more positive angle on the two ideas of sacrifice and death. So this beautiful young woman, we can sacrifice her but we don’t have to kill her. And death itself is not the terrifying thing that we make it out to be, it’s just another step.”
Keegan-Dolan also stresses the significance of the drama’s two elders, played by Olwen Fouéré and Bill Lenfelder.
“They’re really important,” he says. “Without elderly people there can be no young people and vice versa. So the piece is about re-establishing balance; you need to have winter to have spring, old people to have young people, death to have birth. The old people are really important to balance out those ideas and I think that gets lost in many productions.
“In the original ballet the Elders sit and watch the young virgin dance herself to death but that can get twisted around to this idea that you have these old men watching this young woman dance for their benefit and The Rite of Spring is not about that.
“All these energies are in harmony and they need each other; women need men, men need women. Unfortunately, just like our issue with death in society we have serious issues with women; women have been put in a difficult position for a long time in our world so these were the kind of things I was thinking about.”
While Stravinsky’s score quickly acquired classic status, Nijinsky’s choreography just as quickly fell into neglect. As it’s the work’s centenary year, I ask Keegan-Dolan for his thoughts on Nijinsky’s contribution to The Rite.
“I think Nijinsky got a hard deal in all of that and Stravinsky’s mercurial nature was a bit suspect,” he replies. “Shortly after the premiere Stravinsky spoke of how wonderful Nijinsky was then years later, when his music was becoming internationally renowned, he talked about how Nijinsky was foolish and had no understanding of his music.
“In the equation between the dance world and the music world, the dance world always comes off as the less respected. In some ways the stories of Stravinsky and Nijinsky mirror that. Nijinsky changed dance. He was one of the first to get people to dance in parallel. When a man gets up to dance in his field because he is happy, because his crops have ripened, he dances in parallel with his toes turned in, with a parallel foot. The rotated legs of classical ballet are in fact a bit of a distortion.
“Turning your feet to about 32 degrees is probably good energetically for most people because the flow of energy through the joints is the most stable structure – when your feet are turned out between 22 and 45 degrees. When you turn them out beyond that you create this distorted thing we call classical ballet, you make people very unstable. It’s unnatural, its genesis comes from how it looks, not how it works.
“So Nijinsky even in his time was questioning the aesthetic integrity of ballet. He was saying all these decisions were being made because they look beautiful or lyrical and he was saying ‘No I want to dance like my ancestors so we’re going to have our feet turned in’. The Joffre Ballet re-created Nijinsky’s choreography in the 1980s and you can see it on Youtube and the Bolshoi Ballet are doing it now for the anniversary. I think it’s quite brilliant. We owe Nijinsky a lot, he’s a god in the pantheon of my world!”
Fabulous Beast will perform The Rite of Spring along with Petrushka at the Black Box Theatre from Saturday July 13 to Saturday 20 (excluding Sunday 14 ). To book see www.galwayartsfestival.com The festival box office opens on June 17 at the Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street.