From the archives: The Rite of Spring

In February 2006, BBC Two showed Riot at the Rite, a specially commissioned film that relived the dramatic premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris, 1913. Would-be thespian and deputy editor Jeremy Pound was on set for the filming. Here, on the 100th anniversary of the Rite's premiere, is his article, which appeared in the January 2006 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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The Rite of Spring'How do you fancy taking part in a riot?’ asks the editor. Not the sort of question I’m normally asked in the BBC Music Magazine office, but I’m all ears. ‘Oh,’ he continues, ‘and it will be on TV.’ It all sounds a bit iffy, frankly. I hope I’m not being asked to take to the streets in violent support of some musical cause célèbre – fair pay for sopranos, fewer notes for viola players, or something of that ilk. If so, I want my lawyer primed.

But no, it’s OK, the editor reassures me, I’m not being required to risk arrest in the cause of duty. The riot in question is just a pretend one, and it will be taking part in a TV studio. The BBC, he explains, is making a film called Riot at the Rite, a recreation of the infamous night in Paris, May 1913, when the premiere of Stravinsky’s revolutionary Rite of Spring ballet caused first uproar and then fisticuffs in the stalls. The filming will involve a full re-enactment of the ballet itself, a star cast, a brand new recording of the music and, of course, a crowd of disgusted theatre-goers. So, to repeat the now clarified question, how would I like to take part as an extra, as one of the outraged audience?

The answer this time is a definite ‘yes’. If there is one moment in musical history that I (and, I suspect, countless other music enthusiasts) would love to be able to turn the clock back to attend, it would be that extraordinary evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Even without the rioting, the Rite of Spring premiere would have been a hugely significant moment in music history. Everything about Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production was startlingly new to the ballet stage, including a backdrop and costumes that one contemporary critic described as ‘an absolutely violent feast for the eyes’ and, of course, Stravinsky’s music, with its aggressive rhythms of ritualistic chanting and foot-stamping, relentlessly, percussively beaten out by a vast orchestra under the baton of Pierre Monteux. But most controversial of all, perhaps, was Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography – clenched claws, knock knees, pointed toes and moves that were every bit as unintuitive for the dancers as they were strange for those watching them. For some in the audience, this was all too much to bear, but for others the Rite took both music and dance into exciting, daring new territory. When the two sides clashed, chaos ensued. So great was the noise from the audience that the dancers were said to be unable to hear the music and had to be directed by Nijinsky beating out the steps from the wings.

A dramatic occasion, then. And if I’m to be part of its recreation, I want to find out more. So, first stop is the New Wimbledon Theatre, where the ‘on-stage’ action is being filmed. Under the extremely watchful eye of dance expert Millicent Hodson, the Finnish National Ballet is re-enacting every step of the Rite’s opening night choreography. When not on stage, the dancers are an amusing, anachronistic sight as, still clad in their Slav pagan costumes and long dark braided hair, they chat away on their mobiles, take pictures with their digital cameras and pop out the back stage door for a quick cigarette. On stage, though, they are mightily impressive. For all the dancers, it’s a brutal routine – all awkward angles and tilts of the head that defy the body’s natural balance – but particularly so for ‘the chosen virgin’, who, in a self-induced trance, has to dance herself to death at the shocking climax of the piece. The Royal Ballet’s Zenaida Yanowsky, who plays this doomed role (danced at the premiere by Maria Piltz), puts in a performance that is as mesmerising as it is mesmerised, and every take is applauded by both her fellow dancers and film crew. There may be more recognisable names in the cast, but here, surely, I’m watching the film’s overall star performance.

‘Zenaida is amazing,’ agrees Millicent Hodson herself, who I meet over a coffee in London as my fact-finding mission continues a couple of weeks later. ‘It’s an incredibly demanding role.’ No one knows the Rite of Spring better than Hodson, and it’s largely thanks to her and her husband Kenneth Archer’s painstaking research that the Riot at the Rite recreation has come about. Not only have they spent many years hunting through the scores, diagrams and written records that have allowed them to choreograph the ballet steps as close to the original as one could possibly ever know, but the same research has also taken in costume design, stage sets... and first night audience reaction.

‘There really was a riot, it really did happen,’ Hodson says. ‘We know the scuffle in the audience started even before the curtains opened – it was partly the music. However, the real altercations occurred as the result of the dancing. When you compare all the reviews, of which there are hundreds of pages worth, about 50 per cent were for the production, about 50 per cent against, but what you really notice is that while some criticised the music and some the decor, the biggest bone of contention was the dancing, because this was the most shockingly different thing. Writing in the Nouvelle Revue Française, [the important and influential critic] Jacques Rivière said that, while the music was something altogether different, there was at least something to recognise – you can hear Musorgsky, you can hear Rimsky-Korsakov. But with the ballet, on the other hand, there are no points of reference to hang anything on. No one had seen whirling, stamping and going into a trance in ballet before.’

So, there was a strong response from the audience. But how far exactly did it go? Booing? Fisticuffs? ‘How much it was like a knock-down, dragged-out fight is hard to tell,’ says Hodson. ‘In my research, I went to the police archives in Paris, to see if the Gendarmes had been called out, but sadly the records from that period had burned in a fire. We do know that there were some punch-ups and people shouting at different levels to each other. We also know that some people came prepared for a riot, as some had come with whistles. You don’t normally bring a whistle to a theatre. There was obviously something very staged about it, which was to an extent down to Diaghilev, who clearly realised that he had a very newsworthy event here. There’s a dress circle at the Champs Elysées where there are very fine seats, sat in by people who have very fine budgets to buy them. Diaghilev sold passes in this area to students.’

Numerous sources have informed Hodson’s recreation of the choreography itself, not least the score of the Rite of Spring annotated by ballerina Marie Rambert, Nijinsky’s dance assistant, who later wrote down the moves just as she remembered Nijinsky himself calling them – the fact that he did not use classical ballet terms shows just how revolutionary they were. Plus, there are the reminiscences and descriptions that Rambert shared in person with Hodson, the drawings made during the premiere by art student Valentine Gross and ballerina Lydia Sokolova’s memoirs, Dancing for Diaghilev. Recreating the original choreography has been a lifelong task, says Hodson, but a necessary one: ‘If we’d lost Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring choreography forever, it would be like losing a Picasso painting. This is what motivated me. If just 25 per cent of the ballet was saveable, it was worth the effort.’

Griff Rhys JonesSo, equipped with a wealth of newly acquired background knowledge, it’s time to riot. I find myself a couple of days later waiting patiently on set at Pinewood Studios at Shepperton, where the filming of the audience scenes is about to begin. Said studios are, of course, more familiar to millions as the place where Sean Connery, Roger Moore et al have, with remarkable but admirable regularity, narrowly escaped death, bumped off evil psychopaths, saved the world and fallen into bed with a succession of lovelies. Today, though, James Bond and his high-tech world are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the corner of one of the vast hangar-style filming areas has been turned into the boxes and seats of the Theâtre Champs Elysées, May 1913, in which sit not evil psychopaths, but 30 or so men and women dressed in turn-of-the-century finery. Stood among these extras are actors Alex Jennings, who, as Sergei Diaghilev, has mastered the art of the superciliously raised eyebrow, and Griff Rhys Jones (right), who is playing the part of the soon-to-be-bankrupt theatre owner, Astruc. All around are producer, cameramen, sound engineers, boom operators, make-up artists, runners, you name it. Director Andy Wilson is at the centre of it all, explaining to the assembled extras just why they are about to boo and shout, and dividing them up into roughly equal parties of ‘pros’ and ‘antis’. Then, after a few checks, there’s a call for hush and the director takes his seat. Camera, lights, action, as they say.

So, this is it, then. This is where I make my filmic debut... Or, in fact, I don’t. Sadly, actors’ union Equity has rules against non-members appearing as extras. I am, it’s true, on set, but not among the cast. Instead I’m with the crew, where booing, catcalling and rioting of any sort is, understandably, strictly forbidden. My role today is simply to sit back, observe and enjoy. Am I disappointed? Not really. I was in fact told some time ago that my non-Equity mug would not be allowed on screen; plus, as the afternoon turns into evening and a number of scenes remain still to be shot, I’m glad to be able to slip off for a glass of wine, leaving my would-be fellow extras to face a few further hours under the hot studio lights. And besides, reliving the first ever Rite of Spring, whether watching the dance recreation or learning more about the history behind it, has been fun. In fact, I’d say it’s been a riot.

Listen to a performance of The Rite of Spring by the Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen on Radio 3's Live In Concert on Thursday 30 May and on iPlayer for seven days afterwards.