When the curtain went up on the premier of Igor Stravinksy's Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in May 1913, a colourful set designed by Nicholas Roerich revealed a pagan Russian landscape with bold strokes that echoed the popular Fauve artists. The set was probably the most benign aspect of this famous production directed by Sergei Diaghlieve and choreographed by the notorious Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes.
The orchestra begins with an amazing lone bassoon solo that conjures the spirits for The Adoration of the Earth like the sinewy seduction of a lone daffodil. It is beautiful but foreboding at the same time. You can listen to the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle play the piece here.
With such an introduction, it's no wonder that the audience was already restless and agitated. When the orchestral dissonance and pounding rhythms took hold it was becoming clear that something different had entered the space. The first dance, the Dance of the Adolescents, were far from dainty ballerinas.
"When the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down ... the storm broke," Stravinsky said. "They came for Scheherazade, or for Cleopatra. And they saw Le Sacre du Printemps. They were very shocked. They were very naïve and stupid people."
The Rite of Spring caused a riot in the theatre that evening. All the modern geometric silhouettes and the primitive storyline of sacrificing a virgin to the gods of fertility appeared brutal and far from the grandiloquent ballet moves they had come to expect.
Instead, they got Vaslav Nijynski, who not only choreographed the entire piece but also played the Fawn - looking more like a mischievous satyr - with his radically minimalist moves and his shocking depiction of sexual fetishism and implied masturbation. He most certainly contributed to the rebellious stirrings of that night.
Spring can be unsettling.
One of my favourite jazz songs, by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf, is called Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. You may not know the composers but the song has been covered by many of the jazz greats. In it, one of the most soulful of lyrics: "Spring this year has got me feeling / Like a horse that never left the post."
Spring 2022 is full of contradictory news of atrocities, banalities, and stunning examples of humanity and kindness. It is causing riots everywhere.