1. The Centenary celebrations of The Rite of Spring

It was 100 years ago that Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky premiered their ballet (music and choreography respectfully) to a rather astonished and somewhat riotous audience in Paris.  Despite receiving a mixed reception the controversy surrounding The Rite of Spring has allowed it to become one of the most reproduced ballets.  It has almost developed into a rite of passage for aspiring choreographers.   The Rite of Spring has become a rite and a ritual in itself.  Over the century there have been many productions and adaptations, and I have mentioned just a fraction of them in this blog.  However, there are a few more that are worthy of note.

One appearance of The Rite which must be mentioned is in the animated classic Disney’s Fantasia from 1940.  Released less than 30 years after The Rite of Spring’s dubious premiere, Fantasia made use of Stravinsky’s score in telling the story of the evolution of the earth, tracking the reign of the dinosaurs to their extinction.  By including Stravinsky’s score alongside famed pieces, such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven’s The Pastoral Symphony and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, The Rite of Spring and Stravinsky was thusly ranked amongst some of the most popular and widely acclaimed classical compositions and composers.  This was The Rite’s first introduction into mainstream entertainment and popular culture.

As one might expect there are a number of special performances of The Rite of Spring this year celebrating the centenary.  Here at Southbank Centre have celebrated with multiple orchestral performances of The Rite, along with other musical masterpieces by Stravinsky, and Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle – a solo ballet performed by Paul White, which explores the conflicting forces of nature and man, masculinity and femininity, violence and nurturing, strength and vulnerability. 

Other notable 2013 productions of The Rite of Spring include the trio of dance performances on at Sadler’s Wells, as part of ‘The String of Rites‘.  I have already discussed one of these, Keegan Dolan’s enlightening version, but the other two are also worth a mention.  The Riot Offspring is a project developed and choreographed by Sébastian Ramirez, Mafalda Deville, Ivan Blackstock, Simeon Qsyea, and Pascal Merighi.  Danced by the National Youth Dance Company, along with amateurs of varying ages, The Riot Offspring is not only a celebration of Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but also a celebration of international dance, with a 100 strong inter-generational cast. 

Alongside this Sadler’s Wells hosts a new production by Akram Khan, entitled iTMOi (In the mind of Igor), a production which does not use Stravinsky’s music.  Instead it features an original score by three contemporary composers.  The dance does not tell the same story as The Rite of Spring, but alternatively considers Stravinsky’s transformation of classical music, exploring the human condition and emotion rooted in the idea of a woman sacrificing herself by dancing to death. 

The last 2013 production I would like to mention is one which comes from the States.  Choreographer Douglas Martin has re-imaged The Rite in a 1960s setting.  Danced by the American Repertory Ballet, Martin’s production is more theatrical than some versions, with it being based in a New York advertisement agency.  Think Mad Men with balletic movement!  To some extend Martin has jumped on the bandwagon pulled by the popular TV show Mad Men, but he does have an understanding of the heritage of The Rite of Spring.  Martin danced in the Joffrey reproduction of Nijinsky’s original in 1987. His experience of The Rite has allowed him to still convey the essence of tribalism and ritualised behaviour in his ballet.  His Rite explores the way in which the 1960s work place was a scene of dominated and repressed ‘office girls’ and competitive testosterone-fuelled men.  The brutal competition amongst the men in an ad agency with the ritual combat of rival tribes is the basis for the story.  Martin’s Rite depicts what happens when one of the ad men is defeated by his peers and, to everyone’s consternation, a woman moves in for the kill. 

There a numerous versions of The Rite of Spring out there.  These are but a few that I have shared with you, and I am sure that in another 100 years time there will be many many more productions to discuss.

Take a look at the first post in these series and check out some of the other productions of The Rite of Spring that have been discussed.

2. The Rite in the digital age

The Rite of Spring took a giant leap into the digital age in the interactive real-time generated stereoscopic dance and music project Rites by Klaus Obermaier and Ars Electronica Futurelab.  The audience was invited into the auditorium at Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre, donning 3-D glasses to witness a performance like no other.  With Stravinsky’s score performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Julia Mach danced her own ballet on a plinth in front of the orchestra.  Behind, a vast backdrop displayed the digitally created visuals, which included a real-time digital rendition of Julia Mach as she danced; along with visuals that pulsed, flashed and gyrated to the distinctive rhythms of the music.

The Rite of Spring has always been somewhat seen as a piece of two halves: one Stravinsky’s dynamic score, the other Nijinsky’s innovative ballet.  Rites has rendered The Rite of Spring whole once more, where music and choreography, orchestra and dancers are presented to the audience as equal partners of performance, with both similarly on display; both exposed and watched as much as the other.  As Julia Mach dances the orchestra plays in full visibility.  Neither is absent nor hidden.  This partnership is further displayed through the digital visuals, melding the two art-forms and creating a third.  The Times said that it was ‘truly dazzling… a world where the real and virtual intermingle.’  Indeed, not only was it a world where the real and virtual met, but it was also a world where the heard, the seen and the imagined were brought together.

3. Dogs, witches and feminisation in The Rite of Spring

Few adaptations of The Rite of Spring are as creative as Michael Keegan-Dolan’s production performed in 2009 by the Fabulous Beast dance company.  The ballet has been re-imagined in an extraordinary way.   The whole dance is full of connotations, juxtapositions and analogies.

Set in an anonymous working-class patriarchal town, the catalyst for the whole story is a haggard old woman, a Cailleach.  Under her witchy spell the men begin to lose their modern civility, reverting to an atavistic ritualised pagan demeanour.  The men turn against their one another, becoming animalistic, revolting against their patriarchal elders, wielding knives against the old and the weak. This behaviour becomes heightened, even rabid and murderous when the dancers don oversized dog heads and begin to hunt three women, who in turn don their own hare heads.
The dog heads are truly terrifying;rendering the metamorphic men nightmarish, as if out of some gothic tale of magic and mayhem.  The canine animalistic instincts mixed with the male testosterone are almost palpable as the men run riot on stage, creating an atmosphere of terror and chaos. The town is losing its humanity, ushering in an age of Darwinian survival.

The Cailleach’s spell is only broken when winter is brought to an end.  However, in Keegan-Dolan’s production it is not the fatal sacrifice of a girl which concludes winter and welcomes in the spring. Instead of one Chosen One the whole male community, lead by a single girl, must undergo a process of enlightenment and feminisation. The saviour of the town lies in the men embracing femininity and casting off the mentality which was the root of their predatory animalistic behaviour.  The men discard their clothing, redressing themselves in brightly coloured patterned sundresses and dance into a frenzy as snowflakes fall on to them.kd end

4. The Rite gets a Hip-Hop beat with the Ballet Boyz

In 2009 the Ballet Boyz, the brainchild of Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, performed their own version of The Rite of Spring for BBC Three.  This was to be a new and exciting rendition of the ballet, produced especially for television, although still performed in front of a live audience.  By assembling a world-class cast of professional and amateur dancers they were able to stage a jaw-dropping contemporary production.  Ballet Boyz: The Rite of Spring won Grand Prix at the prestigious Golden Prague International TV Festival.

As said, the cast is made up of a mix of professional and amateur dancers, of all ages, shapes and sizes.  There is a strong theme throughout the production of amalgamation and inclusion.  The dancers are old and young, men and women, black and white.  The choreography borrows from a vast array of dance styles including, ballet, hip-hop, tango, street-jazz and even pole dancing.  There is a dance for everyone, with dancers representing all echelons of society and culture. 

One of the most striking elements of the production is the urban aesthetics.  The performance itself took place and was filmed inside a brick-exposed warehouse, giving the impression of an underground illicit performance space.  The dancers wear outfits reminiscent of bondage, with shiny PVC and leather featuring heavily.  The younger cast members are scantily clad in hot-pant shorts and bra-like tops, with knee high boots and long gloves, or ribbons of PVC wrapped around their legs and arms.  Their costumes exude the bondage in which they are placed; under the elders of the community, subject to their superiors’ will.  The older women dancers wear variations on leather corseted full-length dresses, rendering them frightening figures, full of severity and power.

ballet boyz

Throughout the piece there is a sense of female prowess over the men; a matriarchal society led by a high-priestess-cum-dominatrix.  Indeed, Ballet Boyz: The Rite of Spring turns the original story on its head somewhat, with a man as the Chosen One, redefining the relationship between the sexes in The Rite.  Whilst this production is not exactly shocking to its audience, it is innovative.  It draws influence from a range of dance forms and from various elements of society.  It redefines The Rite in an urban contemporary context, bringing it into the 21st century and the metropolis of the cities.   

5. The Rite gets risqué with Preljocaj

In 2001 the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj restyled The Rite of Spring for 12 dancers of the Ballet Preljocaj.  Performed on a sparsely designed set, with the dancers revolving around a grass-covered pedestal, this ballet is stripped down in many ways.  It is not only the set which has been pared down, but also the costumes.  The dancers wear simple black skirts and bras or bare-chests and trousers, allowing the audience to focus on the dance without the distraction of elaborate costumes.  The audience can thusly witness the physical movements of the body, the muscles exposed as they work.

Warning: this production contains scenes which may be shocking and offensive to some.

Preljocaj’s version has certainly kept up The Rite’s reputation for shocking audiences.  In this production the storyline is something of a combination of Maurice Béjart’s and Pina Bausch’s versions, in that the Chosen One is subject to the misogyny of the surrounding males.  Sexualised and exploited as an object of pleasure she is required to perform the culminating carnal ritual.  The Chosen one is forced into this role; selected, captured and then stripped of her clothing by a hoard of deranged dancers.  Sexual urges overtake logic, civility and morality, emphasising the futility of striving against this base desire.


The brutality of this all is rather disturbing, leaving the audience questioning the direction of the piece, along with their own conscience and self-control.  It is highly voyeuristic watching this woman reduced to a naked sexualised object.  She dances as the others look on, surrounding the pedestal on which she is placed, guarding her and the ritual. The whole experience is quite disconcerting and leaves you feeling uneasy.  It is difficult to pin point exactly why though.  I don’t think that we are so prudish as to revolt at the sexuality on display, nor the nakedness.  Perhaps it is the combination of both, with the callousness of the characters and the acts which take place.  Or is it, as Preljocaj himself as postured, the revulsion and shock of being reminded of our own conception and the sexual acts involved?

Whatever the answer, this version of The Rite of Spring is most certainly not for the faint of heart.   Preljocaj’s Rite stares you right in the face and demands you to redefine your own preconceptions of life, society and inherent desires.

6. The Rite gets even more rebellious in Mmm…

Choreographed by Michael Clark in 1992 Mmm… takes The Rite of Spring down a new avenue into punk-rock ballet.  Michael Clark is known for his alternative modern interpretations of ballet and original choreography.  At the Barbican in 2006 Mmm…was revived and coupled with other Stravinsky ballets choreographed by Clark to become Stravinsky Project Part 2: Mmm….  The other parts are entitled Stravinsky Project Part 1: O, which is set to Stravinsky’s Apollo, and Stravinsky Project Part 3: I Do set to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, which is often performed in succession with Mmm….

Mmm… is an interesting production of The Rite of Spring.  For one, the style of choreography, although modern and rather gymnastic, is far more recognisable and accessible to contemporary audiences than Nijinsky’s ballet was in 1913.  It would seem that although Clark has rebelled against conventional and traditional ballet, he is no match for Nijinsky in shocking the audience.  However, he does add some wonderful details to the ballet.  He brings in an element of punk-rock glam with the dancers wearing leather style kilts, which seem to highlight the dancers on the sparse stage.  Joining them are an ensemble of black toilet-seat-collared dancers, a skull-bearing sage with a lace veil, and ‘flower people’ wearing crotch-less green patterned tights.

With the ingenious addition of mirrors as part of the backdrop the audience are able to get a more rounded, and indeed a 360-degree view of the imaginative dancing.  These mirrors actually rotate, heightening the juxtapositions of viewpoints, with light and flashes of red reflecting off the surfaces as they move.

What is most striking is the combination of the yoga-like choreography and the music, which here is played on two pianos rather than a whole orchestra.  The tantric movements seem to be slightly disjointed from Stravinsky’s polyrhythmic phrases, adding to the punk-rock idea of rebelling against the norm.  Continuing in this bold and boundary-push vain, Clark has not choreographed the overture, following in Nijinsky’s footsteps.  Such deference to this section of music is rare nowadays, and many of the productions of The Rite of Spring have had the overture choreographed.

Clark’s version of The Rite of Spring is probably best viewed in relation to the whole of the Stravinsky Project, where Mmm… is accompanied by other Stravinsky ballets and enlivened with music from the likes of Wire, the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop.  The culmination of all the music, dancing, costumes and performers is something which does ultimately make the audience re-evaluate ballet and dance, along with contemporary notions of society.

7. The reconstructed Rite

The next production of The Rite of Spring we are going to look at was choreographed by Millicent Hodson in 1987, and danced by the Joffrey Ballet.  This production is as close as you or I will ever get to seeing Nijinsky’s original ballet.  After years of painstaking research Millicent Hodson, a dance historian and choreographer, managed to piece together Nijinsky’s original choreography from prompt books, sketches and photographs and detailed first hand recollections.  One must applaud Hodson for her passion and dedication to such a task.

Watch the video below to get a sense of her drive behind reconstructing The Rite of Spring.

If we take it that Hodson has succeeded in reconstructing Nijinsky’s ballet (indeed the Joffrey Ballet list the choreographer as Nijinsky, not Hodson) we can see just how revolutionary it was.  The costumes, the story, the unusual dance moves all combined to present something that was innovative, but indeed shocking to the audience.  Even as I watch it today (obviously the Joffrey 1987 performance!) I am taken out of my dance comfort zone.  The choreography here is something extraordinary, working somehow simultaneously with and against the music.