by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 12, 2012
“Periodicals are commemorating this year the centenary of Richard Wagner,” the Paris magazine Montjoie declared, on May 29, 1913. “We hate how convenient these events ruled by the artistic calendar have become for presenters of all kinds. We render homage to the genius of Richard Wagner by honoring, at its birth, a masterpiece by a young musician whose influence upon the élite is already very great: Igor Stravinsky.” The work in question was “The Rite of Spring,” which the Ballets Russes premièred that evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. Famously, some in the first-night crowd had an adverse reaction, but the world soon came round to Montjoie’s point of view. Almost a century on, Stravinsky’s ballet of pagan sacrifice is itself occasioning the kind of calendar-driven programming that Montjoie deplored; this season, the “Rite” centennial will be intertwined with the Wagner bicentennial, which falls one week earlier. In September, both the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics played the “Rite” in their opening weeks, and Carolina Performing Arts, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has devoted its entire season to music and dance performances related to the work. In late October, the University of North Carolina presented an allied academic conference called “Reassessing ‘the Rite,’ ” with two dozen lectures and papers, spread over four days.
The anniversary industry is more dubious than ever, symptomatic of a music culture fixated on the past. The New York Phil might better have honored Stravinsky if it had opened its season with, say, a provocative new piece by a thirty-year-old composer. Still, the “Rite” remains incomparably vital, and I happily underwent the crash course provided by U.N.C. (Because of the approach of Hurricane Sandy, I had to leave the gathering a day early, but caught up with what I missed on video.) Scholars scrutinized the “Rite” from multiple angles, examining its Russian and Parisian roots, its cultural context, microscopic details of its score, its reception as a ballet, and its afterlife as an orchestral showpiece. Even so, much went unexplored: Stravinsky’s effect on jazz and rock, his influence on movies (the octatonic dinosaurs of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” were mentioned only in passing), his relationships with modernist writers and painters, his seismic impact on almost every aspect of twentieth-century music. One conference is not enough to register the full extent of what Stravinsky unleashed.
The scholars spent little time rehashing the legendary première. The event is familiar even to those who know little of modern music: the boos, the whistles, Stravinsky leaving in a rage, Nijinsky yelling out beats, Gertrude Stein watching a man smash another man’s top hat with a cane, Florent Schmitt’s cry of “Shut up, bitches of the seizième!” In a keynote address, the Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin, whose 1996 book “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions” dominates contemporary discussion of the composer, pointed out that the riot is principally a problem for dance historians; the raw stomp of Nijinsky’s choreography appears to have been the main cause of the bedlam. The music, to the extent that it could be heard, went over fairly well, and one year later, at a concert performance, it triumphed. Within a few decades, the “Rite” was enshrined as a virtuoso vehicle for orchestral players—an “audition piece,” in Taruskin’s words. A scholar of rare critical flair, he spent much of his lecture questioning the glossy perfection of recent performances, saying that the score’s darker energies have been “resisted, rejected, repressed.”
Commentators from the world of dance had a quite different view. For them, the “Rite” is anything but a tamed beast. the choreographer Millicent Hodson discussed her meticulous, though inevitably speculative, reconstruction of the 1913 staging, which she first presented with the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, in collaboration with the designer Kenneth Archer. Hodson proposed that the final “Danse sacrale,” in which a young girl dances herself to death for the sake of the collective, was an allegory for Nijinsky’s own role within the Ballets Russes: “In the end, they took everything that he had.” Lynn Garafola, the author of the authoritative 1989 study “Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes,” surveyed a century of “Rite” choreography, noting that the cultural specificity of the original Russian setting has given way to a dizzying range of styles and locales, from Native American and African dances to salsa and Japanese butoh, from AIDS wards to post-nuclear dystopias. Garafola enthralled the audience as she showed a video of the “Danse sacrale” from Pina Bausch’s 1975 staging, a sweat-drenched modern classic. Here an aura of danger was restored: the sacrificial girl, the Chosen One, desperately scampers backward as the crowd advances upon her with zombielike tread.
The motivations of the Chosen One provoked sharp disagreement. Taruskin, who has drawn attention to Stravinsky’s reactionary tendencies in later years, his “antihumanist message,” cast doubt on the idea that the young girl resists the role that has fallen to her. Even Hodson’s reconstruction, he said, recoils from the pitilessness of the scenario; in the “Danse sacrale,” the Chosen One is shown trying to break out of the circle, introducing “a bit of humanitarian sentiment.” Pieter van den Toorn, whose strict formalist analyses of the “Rite” have often collided with Taruskin’s sociological readings, seemed at one with his rival when he spoke of the “sadism” of Stravinsky’s unpredictable accents. Hodson, in a Q. & A., protested that she had evidence for her conception in the testimony of Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky’s sister. The musicologist Tamara Levitz likewise perceived a spirit of opposition in the “Rite,” a desire to show the “violence inherent in all systems.” The argument went on at lunches and dinners, while U.N.C. prepped for the big game with N.C. state.
On the last day, the scholar Annegret Fauser, in a talk on the French context for the “Rite,” threatened to start a new donnybrook by suggesting that the work may not be as inherently Russian as Taruskin’s study makes out. “Virginal sacrifice and pagan rite were in the mainstream of Parisian theatrical topics,” Fauser said; the ballet seemed designed to satisfy a local hunger for exotic primitivism, although in the end it proved too brutal for the opening-night audience to handle. Brigid Cohen, in a subsequent paper, called for a less nationally rooted understanding of the "Rite," for a richer awareness of its cosmopolitan context. Taruskin, who has a well-deserved reputation for intellectual feistiness, might have been expected to unleash a wounding quip, but he responded to Cohen by agreeing that he had at times overstressed Stravinsky’s Russianness, as a way of countering the composer’s mendacious accounts of his early nationalist period. Collegiality reigned, yet no clear consensus emerged. Stravinsky, no less than Wagner, remains an intellectual hot zone.
Taruskin’s point about the streamlining of Stravinsky in the concert hall went uncontested. The process is hardly peculiar to the “Rite”; as musicians have grown ever more adept at handling the thorniest patches of the modern repertory, almost any work you could name has grown cleaner, more polished, and, perhaps, more lifeless. Taruskin played an excerpt from Stravinsky’s 1940 recording of the “Rite” with the New York Philharmonic, aptly describing it as “an unholy mess—or perhaps a holy mess.” By contrast, Alan Gilbert’s recent rendition with the same orchestra was essentially flawless, exuding what a friend of mine described as “glittering menace.” Although it was one of Gilbert’s finest performances to date, it seemed at some remove from the wildness of the original. The Dudamel version, which I heard on the Internet, was more vehement, but it, too, communicated, to take another image from Taruskin, “the elation of an athlete finishing a decathlon.”
Everything changes when dance enters the equation. as Bausch’s writhing choreography played on a video screen at Chapel Hill, I lost my usual impulse to bop along to the rhythms; instead, I fell into a motionless fright. Sonic entertainment became tragedy. Garafola’s conclusion seemed solid: the “Rite” may be a supreme musical creation, its première a governing myth of cultural history, but it has stayed current, and invites worldwide celebration, through its restless reinvention as a dance spectacle. No matter what the creators’ intentions, the presence of bodies gives human breath to a masterpiece of masks.