by Julia L. Foulkes, Associate Professor of History, The New School

Spring 1913: artwork that caused outrage, derision, acclaim, and confusion. Movement never seen before: feet pounding, torsos thrashing, limbs akimbo. Sounds never heard before: violins used like drums in relentless pulsation, full orchestra instrumentation loud and moaning, little melody or harmony to blunt the onslaught of percussion.

Now considered a masterpiece.

Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring” shocked the art world, much like the Armory Show that just preceded it. In Paris on May 29, 1913, a haunting solo bassoon led a wandering line to a gradual unleashing of piccolo and flutes, each on its own wandering line, until the strings began a quiet beat that had the audience rumbling even before the curtain opened. And then they saw bodies hunched, stomping in unison, as if all thought had vanished with only ravenous physical instinct left behind.

Stravinsky composed music for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before “The Rite of Spring.” But neither “The Firebird” (1910) nor “Petrushka” (1911) prepared audiences for the attack of “The Rite of Spring.” The angularity, frenzied jumping, and rawness of Nijinsky’s choreography only exaggerated the dissonance, volume, and bitonality of the music. The costumes by Nicholas Roerich — tunics with geometric designs — heightened the paganism of the story of ritual sacrifice of a young woman. None of this reflected accepted ideas of beauty or art. Instead, many considered the performance a brutal assault on the senses.

But it has endured, even though an exact rendering of Nijinsky’s choreography has been lost (the closest approximation is a 1989 recreation by the Joffrey Ballet). The piece has been continuously re-imagined, by dance icons Martha Graham and Pina Bausch as well as children in Los Angeles and Berlin. It is as if each generation needs the shock of the original, to be set askew to see the world anew.

Recommended reading:

Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989; rev. ed.  2000)

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.

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