In 1910, while Stravinsky was composing the last bars of music for The Firebird, his mind's eye suddenly conjured up striking images of ancient Russia. "I had a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise, my mind at the moment being full of other things," said Stravinsky in his autobiography. "I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the God of Spring."
After that flash of inspiration, the composer feverishly transfigured the impressions from his mental palette into a riotous musical score of profound genius‹Le Sacre du Printemps ("The Rite of Spring")‹that would alter 20th-century music altogether. The confluence of ideas encompassing atonality, free association in form, and rhythmic changeability made Sacre the perfect springboard for a musical revolution. The impresario Serge Diaghilev, hearing the score played on the piano by the composer at the Grand Hotel in Venice, grasped the excitement of Stravinsky's creation and ushered it to the stage as a ballet with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky and sets and costumes by Nicholas Roerich.
The late opera director John Dexter understood the theatricality of Le Sacre du Printemps, as well as its historical significance, when he included it in his conception of "Stravinsky," a triple bill of one-act works by the Russian composer. Along with Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex, it was first presented at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1981 in a production designed by David Hockney, choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, and conducted by James Levine. This fall's revival of the triptych, with Valery Gergiev on the podium, returns the work to the Met for the first time since the 1983-84 season. To provide new choreography for this revival of Le Sacre, the Met has contracted the American choreographer Doug Varone, who scored a success with his dances for last season's new production of Les Troyens.
Of course, the original production of Le Sacre du Printemps by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes caused a legendary uproar at its premiere. The audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, could hardly have expected the disorienting visual and aural experience awaiting them. After a placidly satisfying performance of Michel Fokine's ethereal and classic "white ballet," Les Sylphides, set to waltzes and mazurkas by Chopin, the Parisians returned from intermission to the strains of a bassoon, played eerily in its upper registers. When the stamping rhythms of Sacre nearly knocked them out of their seats, the audience engaged in its own pagan behavior with fistfights, shouting, jeering, and cheering.
Nijinsky's choreography‹angular, grounded, at times spastic‹ delivered an orgy of atavism that repulsed some patrons and delighted others. Panicked at the audience's response, Nijinsky stood on a chair backstage shouting counts at the dancers who, deafened by the noise, had lost track of the tricky rhythms. In his memoirs, Stravinsky claimed, "I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes, for he was furious, and ready to dash on stage at any moment and create a scandal. Diaghilev kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise." (Stravinsky speculated that Diaghilev may have orchestrated the event to publicize the Ballets Russes; he recalled that following the performance, Diaghilev's only comment was, "Exactly what I wanted.")
Stravinsky was much happier when the piece was performed successfully as a concert work in April 1914. Of Nijinsky's choreography, he flatly stated, "What struck me then, and still strikes me most about the choreography, was and is Nijinsky's lack of consciousness of what he was doing in creating it… How far it all was from what I desired!" Nonetheless, Nijinsky's version provided a radical blueprint for future dancemakers who have attempted to construct choreographic architecture from Sacre's complex musical structure. A partial list of those who have spawned their own visions of the ballet includes Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Glen Tetley, Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Despite a lifetime of artistic collaborations with Stravinsky, George Balanchine never attempted to choreograph the piece. Perhaps he knew too well Stravinsky's disappointment at the Ballet Russes production, or he may have just felt that Sacre stood monumentally and singularly on its own.
Varone, a rare contemporary choreographer who combines the formalist structure of a postmodernist with a humanist's heart, first saw Nijinsky's choreography in a historical reconstruction mounted by the Joffrey Ballet. "It's so striking," said Varone. "It made me realize how much of a stamp that has made on everyone who touches the piece. Stravinsky's score is daunting and has been imagined and reimagined in so many ways that any choreographers who find their way to it have to ask themselves what they can bring to it that's new."
But apart from the opportunity to work with an ensemble of 35 dancers on the Metropolitan Opera stage, it was precisely Stravinsky's music that prompted him to take the assignment. "There is an incredible visceral quality to it," said Varone. "It transports the listener through so many different takes. I work with a lot of musical choices, and the fact that it doesn't live in any rhythmical sensibility I find fascinating. It constantly changes and shifts its rhythmic meter, so it doesn't sit back and allow you to ride it."
Stravinsky frankly stated that there was no overriding principle guiding him in the creation of Sacre, just amazing sounds popping into his brain that almost defied notation. "Very little tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, and no theory," said the composer. "I heard and wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed." Varone shares a keen kinship with Stravinsky's ear. "Those are the things I intuitively hear in the music," said the choreographer. "I hear rhythms within the rhythms and music within the music."
The rhythms underlying Sacre ‹ the displaced accents, the undisguised joins, the dragging ostinati‹generate both the connective tissue and the heartbeat of the piece. Erik Satie described the instrumental sonority of the composition as "vibrating transparency." The percussive spasms evoked in "Augurs of Spring," "Dance of the Earth," and "Sacrificial Dance" contrast with the layered melodic lines and fitful quavers that introduce both the "Adoration of the Earth" and "The Sacrifice."
Unlike in his previous ballets, Pétrouchka and The Firebird, Stravinsky eschewed authentic folk melodies in Sacre, except for quotes from a Lithuanian song in the prelude. Instead, he appropriated what he knew of the language of Russian folk melody‹limited pitch ranges, short phrases, varied repetitions, and characteristic intervals ‹ leaving the impression of fragments of indigenous songs that haunt the music's landscape. In a similar manner, there are only references, rather than an adherence to, tonal roots, although the work climaxes in the last movement in the key of D.
In rethinking this Sacre, Varone hopes to create a dance vocabulary that matches the primal, chaotic nature of the music. "There is a Neanderthal kind of essence about it. It could possibly be the first standing human," said Varone. "I'm trying to find a way to incorporate the aspect of technical dancing into these ape-like beings."
Most importantly, Varone wishes to expose the emotional core within the story of a human scapegoat enduring a sacrificial ritua l‹ something that is seldom seen in productions of the ballet. "I'd like to think that one of the strengths I have as a dancemaker is making people feel that a sense of emotion can jump past the proscenium and find its way to the viewer," said Varone. "I want to bring a very strong sense of fear and anger and indecision to the front, and I want the audience to believe that the Chosen One is perhaps not accepting of this honor‹even genuinely petrified of the sacrifice."
For Varone, the timeliness of the theme of sacrifice is present: "I think that is something that many people would relate to‹this sense of not wanting to give yourself over ‹ particularly in light of everything that is going on in the world. The idea of having to do your duty whether you believe in it or not."
In 1918, near the conclusion of World War I, Jean Cocteau critiqued a performance of Nijinsky's Sacre. His impression of the image of the Chosen One in the final Sacrificial Dance shares a resonance with Varone's sentiment. "When she falls dead, the ancestors draw near, receive her body and raise it towards the heavens," wrote Cocteau. "This theme, so simple, so devoid of symbolism‹today seems to hold a symbol. I see in it the prelude to war."
Since its premiere in 1913, Sacre has certainly lost its shock value. But each generation has found both a fascination for and a relationship to the masterpiece. "I want this Le Sacre to have a strong historical sense, but also a strong contemporary one," said Varone.