One hundred years ago, Vaslav Nijinsky appeared on the stage of the Th_ê¢tre de Chê¢telet in Paris, and danced as a puppet come to life. The composer of Petrushka was Igor Stravinsky, a young Russian who already had become the talk of Paris for his music to The Firebird, which had premiered the previous year. Both works were commissioned by Sergey Diaghilev for his company, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev had taken a chance on the unknown Stravinsky, a chance that paid off in a way the impresario especially appreciated: notoriety.
The Firebird had impressed many critics for the audacity of the astonishingly accomplished composer, who had not yet reached 30. Petrushka produced more critical dissension, however, with audiences finding the work unbearably dissonant and confusing. One can imagine what Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky might have thought: You ain't seen nothin' yet.
In 1913 The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) premiered, sparking a legendary riot: an event that came to define the term succs de scandale. After the disastrous opening night, The Rite became the hottest ticket in Paris, and the Ballets Russes became the most sought-after company in the world.
"One hundred years ago was the period in which the Ballets Russes was setting the world on fire," says St. Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson. That fire will be carried throughout the Symphony's 2011 _2012 season, with performances that not only commemorate the artistic brilliance of the Ballets Russes, but celebrate the relationship between dance and music.
The concerts specifically related to the Ballets Russes include the Opening Weekend all-Stravinsky program of Petrushka, Les Noces, and The Rite of Spring; works composed by Maurice Ravel, excerpts from Carnaval, and Daphnis and Chloe, in November; The Firebird in March; and Sergey Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, in April. Prokofiev began the work with Ballets Russes in mind, dreaming of his own succs de scandal with bacchanalian themes. Diaghilev did not find favor with the piece though, so Prokofiev made a concert suite out of it: the spirit of dance no less apparent in the dramatic score.
A dance theme, which extends beyond the Ballets Russes, continues throughout the season, not unlike the Russian theme that ran throughout the 2010 _2011 season schedule.
In November, for example, there is not only Ravel's contributions to the Ballets Russes: the excerpts from Carnaval, and Daphnis and Chloe: but also his stunning popular work, La Valse. In La Valse, Ravel expresses the unraveling of Europe following the calamity of World War I by taking a form that had come to represent the height of European sophistication. His waltz is dark and delirious, as would befit a composer who had witnessed first-hand the madness of total war.
Ravel is again prominent in a Thanksgiving Weekend program. As Robertson describes it, "Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole is an homage to Spain. Ravel felt himself connected to the French Basque people and region, which evolved into the Spanish dance form of Bolero." The flavor of Spanish dance is also reflected in the music of the extraordinary guitarist Juan Carmona, who makes his St. Louis Symphony debut for these concerts. "He is one of the principal flamenco guitarists of our time," says Robertson. Carmona will perform his own Sinfonia Flamenca with the St. Louis Symphony.
In February, the phenomenal Hubbard Street Dance Chicago returns to Powell Hall for four concerts with Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony. This sensational collaboration between dance company and orchestra attracted sold-out performances at Powell in 2009. Symphony musicians were as thrilled by the concerts as the audiences. Double bassist Don Martin recalls, "Their last performance with us included fantastic dancing, amazing lighting, and our music that transformed Powell Hall into a fantasy world."
But then one doesn't have to be a choreographer to imagine dance forms emerging out of music, whatever the music may be. An all-Mozart program in October, led by guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, cannot help but inspire the mind to dance. In November, a program that features Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 begins with a chaconne, a popular musical form that has evolved into a wide range of genres: from opera to blues ballads: but whose roots are in dance. At one time it was thought of as a lascivious dance form, much like the waltz when it was the modern dance craze. Henry Purcell's Chaconne in G major was written by the time the chaconne had become, in Robertson's words, "more coy. Purcell's is like a passacaglia. It's short, and gives the strings the opportunity to shine. You don't ever want the sound to stop."
Robertson even finds the spirit of dance in Bach's Mass in B minor, concerts in the spring that will combine an all-star guest quartet of Susanna Phillips, Kate Lindsey, Nicholas Phan, and Stephen Powell with the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. For those who may not consider Bach to be so light on his feet, Robertson presents a different idea of the supreme composer. "Bach is the very definition of a Lutheran composer," he observes, "but here he is taking the Mass, which is Roman Catholic liturgy. Bach is reaching toward the larger idea, and creates some of the most beautiful music ever written. There is a dance-like lightness counterbalanced by an ecumenical hugeness."
Bach carries great weights lightly, which very well describes the magic of dance as it is propelled by music: Nijinsky making the inanimate come to life, buoyed by Stravinsky's sound. A worthy theme for an orchestral season.
Eddie Silva is the External Affairs and Publications Manager for the St. Louis Symphony.