It takes a daringly optimistic choreographer - or a blithely unaware one - to tackle the 20th century's greatest piece of music. Many have tried, most have failed, their invention submerged by a score of colossal scale and titanic achievement. The beast is, of course, Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps or The Rite of Spring, a kraken that awakes in the orchestra pit to lash its tail and flex its terrifying muscles. It is, the Albanian- French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj says, quoting Arthur Honegger, the atom bomb that launched 20th-century music.
Preljocaj created his Rite of Spring last year and brings it here, the latest in a long line that spans, incredibly, 89 years. This monument to iconoclastic modernity is, it seems, rather old. It was also, from the start, conceived as a ballet in collaboration with Nicolas Roerich who not only made the designs, but also with Stravinsky devised the scenario. They imagined a prehistoric Slavic tribe who herald spring with the traditional sacrifice of a maiden - she dances to death to propitiate the gods of fertility. Diaghilev claimed the score for his Ballets Russes and Vaslav Nijinsky was designated as its choreographer.
Nijinsky was only 23. He had mesmerised Europe by his dancing and was now starting out as a choreographer. His first ballet, L'apres- midi d'un faune (1912) had already revealed him as ballet's first modernist, exploding received dance ideas at the same time as Cubism was shattering and fragmenting visual perception. He may have been inarticulate, but he had an original and determined, hardworking mind. He approached each project as a tabula rasa eliciting its own terms of reference. For The Rite of Spring, his third piece, he invented an anti-ballet primitivism, with turned-in feet and blunt, bestial contours. Suddenly ballet was no longer decorative and decorous, but a brutal expression of inner states. Nijinsky was painting humanity at its most instinctive, crystallising a score that evoked the wild and savage spring of the Russian steppes, when the ice cracks and procreation begins.
Richard Buckle's biography Nijinsky gives a detailed account of the creation of The Rite of Spring. In rehearsal it wasn't just Nijinsky's movement that was a problem. There was also the score's entirely alien complexity, which negated all known rhythmic and orchestral procedures. With no consistent melodies to latch on to, with time counts that shifted with each bar, the dancers found themselves hopelessly entangled. To help, Diaghilev enlisted Marie Rambert (then Miriam Ramberg), star pupil of Emile Jaques- Dalcroze whose system of eurythmics promoted the analysis of music through movement.
Maria Piltz was cast as the sacrificial Chosen Maid. Because she had problems understanding her solo, Nijinsky danced it for her. Watching, Rambert thought it very powerful, his movement stylised and controlled, yet exploding in paroxysms of fear and grief. When Piltz danced the role in public, she managed only a pale reproduction, although the audience was impressed.
Especially remarkable was that Nijinsky arrived at these new angularities by himself, before Martha Graham or Mary Wigman invented modern dance, although he did see Isadora Duncan give a demonstration. When an acquaintance asked Nijinsky what his Rite was going to be like he joked, "Oh, you won't like that either," referring to his controversial Faune. He struck a flattened Faune plastique pose. "There's more of that kind of thing." But no one could have anticipated that the audience would actually riot at the ballet's Paris premiere on 20 May 1913, in the Theatre des Champs- Elysees.
"The theatre seemed to be shaken by an earthquake," remembered the artist Valentine Gross. "It seemed to shudder. People shouted insults, howled and whistled, drowning the music. There was slapping and even punching. The dancers could not hear the music. …