Stravinsky’s work was the first classical music I sought out on my own, mostly because Frank Zappa told me to. His recommendation, in a published interview I read at the age of maybe fifteen, of The Rite of Spring and The Soldier’s Tale, had me off like a shot to the LP bins at the public library. The Rite in particular became the object of lifelong fascination: it was the first piece of music I procured a score for, the first piece I got snarky about the superiority of one recording or interpretation over another (Pierre Boulez was my first love, until CBS released a version conducted by Stravinsky himself. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of the arrangement for two pianos was a treasured piece of vinyl, one that seems, sadly, long out of print.)
In over forty years of fascination with The Rite, however, I never had the opportunity to see it danced. The stories about Nijinsky’s choreography and the opening night riots tantalized; satisfaction remained elusive.
Then, in 2013, our campus performing arts organization hosted a year-long celebration of “The Rite at 100.” And suddenly I had more opportunities to see The Rite performed than I could take advantage of. I saw the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of the original choreography late in the season and was tremendously …. surprised? disappointed? LMAO? It seemed so antique, too ethnographically condescending to have legendary status. But it was a thrill to see it nonetheless, and a delight to have it now on YouTube whenever I want to watch it again in its entirety.
YouTube is less generous with other versions I got to see that year. The first of them was Marie Chouinard’s very French interpretation: the thrill here came in seeing for the first time bodies moving to Stravinsky’s rhythms. The video is something of a cheat: it looks like dance + music, but it’s really a trailer, cleverly edited:
I also got to see Martha Graham’s classic interpretation, as stylized in its own way as the Joffrey / Nijinsky piece. Graham’s interpretation is less keyed to the rhythms of Stravinsky and more determined to present the narrative of sacrifice through tableaux. And yet much of the movement seems to have little to do with pagan rituals; turn off the sound and this could almost as easily be a stage full of chorus boys in a Cole Porter hallucination. But maybe half a century from now Chouinard will look equally improbable .
The most astounding interpretation of the season came from Bill T. Jones, who took more liberties with score and concept than anyone else. Because he’s Bill T. Jones, whom I admire more than almost any other contemporary choreographer, I found his work the most inspirational and thought-provoking; and my store of forgiveness for taking Stravinsky apart and reassembling him in little pieces remains large. At times the score came through on a tinny transistor radio, at other times it was interpreted by a small jazz band; it was constantly interrupted, broken up, sampled by a mad DJ.
The clip which follows is also a trailer, but it captures the central conceit of the performance: it puts The Rite in the context of 1913 and environs: it is the age of the Titanic, and the start of the Great War. It is the moment when Einstein’s theories birth the science that will ultimately end the second World War with the bomb. Stravinsky himself presages the Jazz Age sound that will assuage the wounded of the Great War. In short, Jones tells us how the history of the modern world began at the time when The Rite of Spring debuted. Coincidence? Causation? You decide. That’s what great art demands.
Mark Morris, the other choreographer in my most-revered category these days, also honored The Rite back in 2013 with a piece called Spring, Spring, Spring. I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing this performed, but the excerpts that appear online demonstrate Morris’ unwavering devotion to matching music and movement in ways that modern choreography rarely attempts, much less succeeds at. It’s amazing how simple his vocabulary is and how he disruptively uses the arrangement of the score by the jazz band The Bad Plus—piano, bass, drums—who have in themselves produced one of the most startling and satisfying revisions of Stravinsky ever. Bill T. Jones used their recording in his own version, at the moment he wanted to look into the future.
Here’s another brief excerpt:
Over the years I’ve been unable to decide whether I am in awe of Pina Bausch’s choreography or in fear of it. It’s been a love-hate relationship, but her interpretation of The Rite looks to be among the best that strive to adhere to the original score and concept. It occupies a landscape somewhere in between Morris’s fidelity in movement to the score and Graham’s emotional interpretation of the story. Bausch, ever the master of pain communicated through motion, makes richly sensual both the instruments the dancers move to and the psychological states they move through. This is brutality and fear made visible, almost palpable.
The final movement, “The Sacrificial Dance – The Chosen One,” as interpreted by Bausch is also available online. In fact, the entirety of this performance can be seen here if you’re willing to ignore an large and unfortunate watermark from the unlicensed software that was used to create the digital video.
But perhaps the most surprising kinetic interpretation of The Rite that I’ve come across in the past two years is the gift not of a choreographer but of Stephen Malinowski’s Music Animation Machine. This is a program that approximates a score, or a tablature, for those who can’t read music. Higher pitches appear in lines above lower pitches; highlights indicate the duration of a note. What this animation does most successfully with The Rite is to help the ear distinguish what’s happening more clearly and to understand the relationships among instruments in the score. You will hear the music anew, I’ll guarantee. Watch it on a big screen.