A Rite to Riot

“When the booing and catcalls began, Stravinsky left the hall in a rage and went backstage, where he spent the rest of the performance holding onto Nijinsky’s coat-tails while the choreographer stood on a chair shouting numbers (in Russian) to the dancers, to try to keep them in time.”

–Wendy Thompson from the London Symphony Orchestra’s Bluffer’s Guide to The Rite of Spring


When Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes premiered The Rite of Spring, or Le Sacre du printemps, at Paris’s Theatre des Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913, a riot broke out. The score by Igor Stravinsky was a panoply of shifting syncopations and dissonant harmonies, while the choreography by famed danseur Vaslav Nijinsky curled the dancers’ bodies inward as they jerkily stamped and jumped across the stage. Archaeologist and painter Nicholas Roerich contributed the set design and the costumes, which were described in a 2002 Ballet Magazine article as “heavy smocks, handpainted with [primitive] symbols of circles and squares.” The pre-Modernist audience, accustomed to the demure grace of classical ballet, was further outraged by the graphic nature of the ballet’s story–the pagan sacrifice of a virgin by her village to usher in spring. Nijinsky’s ballet was performed only seven more times–in Paris and London– before disappearing from the classical repertoire for reasons including Nijinsky’s mental breakdown and the deterioration of his relationship with Diaghilev. Many new iterations of the ballet were choreographed–including versions by Pina Bausch and Martha Graham–but only the score remained intact from the initial performances.

At that time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would “acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes”. Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on”. Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s program continued.