A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was  Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.

It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.

RiteofSpringDancers
Riot-worthy ballet costumes. I guess. Rite of Spring Dancers. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.

Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.

At a ballet.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,  I’m super  kind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.

But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.

Igor_Stravinsky_Essays
Does this look like a man who would inadvertently cause a riot? Igor Stravinsky. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Publisher: J. & W. Chester, publisher, no author listed (Miniature essays: Igor Stravinsky) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.

Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.

But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.

For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.

800px-Beastie_Boys_Sonar_2007_Barcelona_Catalonia
This man, however, might tempt me to embrace my crazy. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz By bakameh (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.

So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.

And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

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9 thoughts on “A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

  1. I got given a set of 12 LPs of “Classical Music” for my 12th b’day (in 1961) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was among them. I was fortunate to become addicted to it at an early age, and still am! In fact it still so thrills me that I’m just as likely to whack someone over the head with a cane for quite the opposite reason!

    I look forward to your “exciting news”… what could it possibly be?!!

  2. I think if you were going for an evening at the ballet in 1913 you might have been expecting something more like Tchaikowsky, but Rite of Spring didn’t come out of nowhere. There was plenty of music like that around at the time. It’s interesting to think that the riot might not be all it was cracked up to be.

    1. Yeah, I was a little disappointed to find that out, but it does make a lot of sense. Mobs will do some crazy things, but in that environment it seems a little suspect. A lot of analysis I read also leaned toward the choreography more than the music really setting off the crowd, though the disturbance allegedly started with the first note before the curtain had risen. Personally I find that high bassoon hauntingly beautiful.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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