Vaslav Nijinsky 1889-1950
Vaslav Nijinsky - Le Sacre du printemps - Original 1913 ballet - Joffrey historic recording (1989)
This is a version of the original 1913 ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) It is the historic 1989 recording of the Joffrey Ballet presenting Nijinsky and Stravinsky's 1913 masterpiece for the first time to a mass audience.

In 1913 the Ballets Russes performed a ballet that was so strange and disturbing that created a riot and the police had to be brought in to bring order. It was the premiere of Sacre du Printemps - the ballet - not the orchestral piece. It was a breakthrough in modernism. In music set the standard for modern music and the ballet was the inspiration for the modern dance movement. After its run and a brief run in London the ballet disappeared. The music became a concert piece and is well known today. But what is little known is that the music was never meant to be a concert piece. It was part of a collaboration between several artists to create a ballet and listening to the music alone is like listening to The Nutcracker without ever seeing the ballet.

It is only recently that this still strange and disturbing ballet has been seen again on the stage. Reconstructed over many years and with great care by members of the Joffrey Ballet, this is a TV broadcast of the Joffrey performing the work in 1989, and is the first to be seen on film or television and the first time Nijinsky and Stravinsky's ballet was ever recorded.

The other is the better produced of the two from the Mariinsky Ballet (formally the Kirov). Both are danced by excellent dancers, but to my mind this, the Joffrey performance, is the best. They really understood the piece and they dance it with much more conviction. Some may feel differently and certainly both are worth watching, but the Joffrey dancers danced it fully committed to the anti-ballet and primitive style that Nijinsky intended, while the Mariinsky Ballet never quite got out of the habit of being graceful and would lapse into that traditional style occasionally.

There are several other versions of the ballet that were choreographed by different people in recent times. Some of these are on this site. However, Nijinsky's choreography is clearly the one that carries the original conception of the piece and other choreographies would have to be considered as a sort of "remix" and not what the original artists (Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, and Roerich) had in mind.

The first half of the show is a documentary on the reconstruction of the ballet which is quite interesting. The actual ballet starts about half way through.

Between 1890 and 1915 Sir James George Frazer published The Golden Bough, one of the most influential books of the 20th century. It eventually came to 12 volumes but it was written for a literate audience not for an academic one. In addition, Sir James made a one (large) volume condensation of the work that could easily be read by an intelligent reader. It dealt with religion and magic in an objective way showing how current religion owed much to primitive culture and practices. One of the many things it documented the practice of a scapegoat or someone who was chosen to be killed in order to being new life to the community. It then showed how this practice still existed in current religion and in society in a more sophisticated but still significant form.

Among the artists and writers who acknowledged this book as a major influenced are Robert Graves, William Butler Yates, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence - but why go on, the list is virtually endless and goes to present time with such people as Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, Steven King, even Frances Ford Cappola had the book in a stack of reading material in "Apocalypse Now." A significant influence occurred in the world of music and dance with Igor Stravinsky, Nicholas Roerich, and Vaslav Nijinsky in the creation of Le Sacre du Printemps or The Rite of Spring.

The idea of a ballet based on a woman who dances herself to death as a sacrificial rite in ancient Russia was conceived by the painter and folklorist, Nicholas Roerich. He told this to Stravinsky who, working with Roerich and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, formed a collaboration that was to bring about one of the most famous works of art of the 20th century. A work of art which, although known to nearly everyone who has even a passing acquaintance with Classical music, is virtually unseen in its original conception.

When Le Sacre du Printemps premiered it literally caused a riot. It was so unconventional and so disturbing that the audience hated it to a point where they lost control. They began yelling at the artists, attacking each other and even tried to storm the stage. Stravinsky fled the theater. Nijinsky stood backstage and shouted directions to the dancers who could no longer hear the orchestra, and Diaghilev ordered the lights to be flicked on and off to try to calm the audience. The Paris police arrived but could only bring partial order. The performance went to its end (it is about 20 Min) Newspapers trashed it. It ran for a week, as well as a week in London but then disappeared.

Stravinsky himself is one of the major reasons the ballet is so little known. After the disaster of the first night, Stravinsky defended Nijinsky saying, "Nijinsky's choreography was incomparable, with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted " (letter to Maximilian Steinberg July 3, 1913) However, Stravinsky was a practical man and when it appeared that the Ballet was rejected he sought to separate his music from the ballet so that he could use it as a concert piece saying, "The general impression that I had then of this choreography, is the lack of thought with which it was made by Nijinsky. I saw distinctly his inability to be comparable and to appropriate the revolutionary ideas which constituted the credo of Diaghilev, and that were instilled in him obstinately and laboriously." (Chronicles of My Life 1936). He also began to claim that the whole idea for the ballet was his own - that he wrote the music in isolation and then had to convince Diaghilev to produce it. This is far from true. At the same time he also began to claim that it was the music that caused the riot, hoping to bring additional notoriety to his music. However, all accounts from the Paris newspapers at the time blamed the choreography and ignored the music. I can see why. The music and the choreography are very well matched. the music seems to illustrate the choreography, so naturally it would be the choreography that would receive the blame or the praise. The music, however, was certainly a big part of it. As one of the dancers from the 1913 performance put it. "The choreography doubled the impact of the music."

I can't really blame Stravinsky for all this falsity. It is nearly impossible for any composer to make a living by writing music, and anything he could do to build his reputation he probably felt was fair - especially since Nijinsky was by that time a committed mad man who would not need any promotion of his work.

Be all that as it may, certainly, like The Nutcracker, the music from "Le Sacre" can be heard and enjoyed alone, but all evidence points to the fact that "Le Sacre" in its full aesthetic expression is a ballet not a concert piece. History shows it is not just a Stravinsky creation, but a collaboration between Stravinsky and Nijinsky with some assistance from Diaghilev and Roerich. Certainly the music was written by Stravinsky but the influence of Nijinsky or the others cannot be ignored.

I will not comment on the music, which is well known, except to say that it makes more sense when seen with Nijinsky's choreography. The choreography is one of the most unusual in ballet history. It was performed by one of the best ballet companies that ever existed, the Ballets Russes. Yet the movements are the opposite of ballet. Instead of turning out they turn in. Instead of dancing in unison each member of the chorus dances individually. Instead of leaping and landing gracefully they leap and land with a thud. Instead of moving lightly across the floor they shuffle. It is an anti-ballet, purposefully emphasizing primitive and uncivilized movements. The music reflects this with its discordant harmonies and constantly changing rhythms. I attended a performance by the Joffrey Ballet a few years ago. Even though I had heard the music many times and was prepared for what the choreography was probably going to be like, I found it to be unsettling. It was disturbing and agitating. I actually found myself twitching from tension during the performance and I noticed the same in the rest of the audience. Without any preparation, I can see how it might have created a riot.

The ballet is still controversial. The reviews of the Joffrey reconstruction were mixed. While everyone praised Joffery's effort to bring a lost ballet back to the stage, Some complained that perhaps Joffrey did not really do it right. Maybe there are parts of Najinsky's choreography that were not gotten quite right because the performance seems to lack coherence here or interest there, seem too raw and sometimes too crude (primitive perhaps?) etc. Looking at the ballet and the music I have to say that Joffery did get it right. A part of the concept of this ballet is to return to the Russian roots of dance which were primitive, because Russia had gotten too swept up in the European aesthetic. What the reviewers are really saying is that this choreography is still a bit strange and still not what they are used to. That the effect it produces is still uncomfortable. Considering the historical importance of the ballet, no one will admit that they are still not quite ready for this ballet. So they pick at technicalities.

The ballet has a certain style that is meant to reflect cubist principles of disintegration in form. (Below are a photos from "Le Sacre" and cubist paintings from Duchamp and Picasso.) "Le Sacre" is to ballet as a Picasso painting is to a Rembrandt. This visual alignment with the cubists reinforces the theme of disintegration from orderly civilized life to the chaotic and primitive self-sacrifice. (The stills below do show it, but you can see the similarities even more when the choreography is in motion.)

Le Sacre du printemps as a ballet makes a pointed and unified impression. The primitive is not just in the past but still with us. Like Sir James book, The Golden Bough, the ballet makes it is clear that civilization is only a veneer to hide the same primitive instincts that it is supposed to have supplanted.

The Joffrey Ballet reconstructed the ballet after many years of research in 1987 and on November 24, 1989 it was presented on on TV in Great Performances, Dance in America. The Joffrey version was never produced commercially and isn't even listed on IMDB. It is very, very, very hard to find. I searched long and hard to find it. The full DVD of the Joffrey version is here details.php?id=101212.

Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is divided into two parts with several sub divisions as follows (English translation given followed by original French title)

First Part: A Kiss of the Earth (Première Partie: L'adoration de la Terre)
* Introduction
* The Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls (Les Augures Printaniers: Danses des Adolescentes)
* Ritual of Abduction (Jeu du Rapt)
* Spring Rounds (Rondes Printanières)
* Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes (Jeux des Cités Rivales)
* Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One [the Sage] (Cortège du Sage)
* The Kiss of the Earth (The Oldest and Wisest One) [(The Sage)] (Adoration de la Terre (Le Sage))
* The Dancing Out of the Earth, OR The Dance Overcoming the Earth (Danse de la Terre)

Second Part: The Exalted Sacrifice (Seconde Partie: Le Sacrifice)

* Introduction
* Mystic Circle of the Young Girls (Cercles Mystérieux des Adolescentes)
* The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One (Glorification de l'Élue)
* Evocation of the Ancestors OR Ancestral Spirits (Evocation des Ancêtres)
* Ritual Action of the Ancestors (Action Rituelle des Ancêtres)
* Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One) (Danse Sacrale (L'Élue))

If this is your first ballet go somewhere else. This is a disturbing, challenging and intellectually stimulating experience even for those who have watched ballet all their lives -in fact, maybe more so if you have been watching ballet all your life.