Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is like the Beethoven's Fifth of 20th-century classical music. It's such an iconic work that even if you don't know it, you probably know it.
In 1940, Walt Disney's animators, inspired by the primitive undertones of Stravinsky's aggressive, pulsating music, set to the score visions of a prehistoric world of floating fireballs, bubbling globs of lava, roaming dinosaurs and earthquake-cracked continents. The opening scenes of Fantasia made the Rite of Spring accessible to the masses, but Stravinsky's original plot was a bit more disturbing.
When the Rite was originally composed, it was never meant to be what it is today: standard symphonic fare played by orchestras in concert halls. Instead it was music written to accompany a groundbreaking ballet about an ancient pagan Russian ceremony.
The "plot" is loose: In order to evoke the spirit of spring, a young virgin girl is chosen for a ritualistic ceremony in which she must dance herself into a frenzy until she dies. It's an intense final scene.
In 1913, modern dance as we know it did not yet exist. Parisian audience members were expecting tutus and plies backed by the fluffy, accessible romantic music popular in the 19th century. The shock of what they heard and saw caused a riot at the ballet's premier.
Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed the Rite of Spring for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes using flat-footed dancers who convulse and jerk with the uneven beat of Stravinsky's changing meters. The music is bizarre; Stravinsky was one of the first composers to experiment with polytonality, a method of creating clashing sounds by playing in two or more keys at once.
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It didn't take long for Stravinsky's music to be accepted as a masterpiece of early modernism. But the original Nijinsky choreography wasn't performed after 1920, and it thought to be lost until one of America's most innovative dance companies, the Joffrey Ballet, brought it back to the stage in the 1980s.
It's been 20 years since the Joffrey Ballet has come to Dallas. The iconic American dance company now resides in Chicago, but its extensive touring schedule has brought world-class artistic performances to cities around the country, including this one.
This iconic "company of firsts" was the first ballet company to appear at the White House (at Jacqueline Kennedy's request). It was the first and only to appear on the cover of Time magazine and the first to perform on TV. In addition to Stravinsky's Rite, the Joffrey will also dance After the Rain (set to Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa and Spiegel im Spiegel) and a work inspired by Jane Austen and Edith Wharton's novels called Age of Innocence.
The Joffrey will appear at the Winspear Opera House tonight and tomorrow. Don't forget your torches and pitchforks, just in case the Rite can still cause a riot.