The Ballet Detectives; an Ambitious Four-Year Project to Perform the Complete Works of Stravinsky Launches This Week with the Birmingham Premiere of His Epoch-Making Ballet the Rite of Spring. Terry Grimley Talks to Birmingham Royal Ballet Director David Bintley and the Husband-and-Wife Team Who Have Restored Nijinsky's Long-Lost Production
Byline: Terry Grimley
Ninety-two years after its notorious premiere, The Rite of Spring remains one of the towering monuments of early 20th century modernism: but is that Stravinsky's Rite or Nijinsky's?
Diaghilev's Ballet Russes had already unveiled two mould-breaking ballets with scores by Stravinsky, The Firebird and Petrushka, when the still more radical Rite of Spring unleashed a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913.
Its heady mix of dissonant ultra-modern music and primitive ritual - the ballet depicts ritual sacrifice among a prehistoric Russian tribe - was too much for the fashionable Paris audience.
Since then the music has become established as a popular concert showpiece, even though it took several decades for orchestral musicians around the world to tame its rhythmic complexity. Its inclusion in the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia probably helped its assimilation.
But the ballet itself has remained virtually invisible, a victim of the prejudice that regards music and art as permanent but dance as ephemeral.
A reconstruction of the original choreography by the great Russian dancer Nijinsky was not seen until 1987. That it has been seen at all is a tribute to the dogged detective work of American dancer, choreographer and dance historian Millicent Hodson.
Her work on honing the reconstruction contines in partnership with her husband, the English art historian Kenneth Archer. The latest stage on their odyssey is Birmingham, where they have been supervising Birmingham Royal Ballet's first production of the Rite, which is unveiled on Wednesday.
Millicent's work on the ballet began in the early 1970s. As she points out, she's glad that she started when she did because it meant that she had access to important eye-witnesses like Marie Rambert - 'the most important person on earth to find because she was Nijinsky's assistant' - and Nijinsky's daughter Irina.
From the outset, she refused to buy into the view that dance was an art form of the moment which became lost in performance.
'That upset me so much. My whole thing became 'when is a ballet lost if there's all this material still around?' It's much more common now for people to be interested in dance history than it was 25 years ago.'
With hindsight she can claim that her argument that the ballet 'wasn't really lost, just scattered' has been vindicated. But it has taken a lot of hard work to put it back together.
A vital ingredient was a comprehensive set of drawings made by a young art student, Valentine Gross, during the opening season at the Theatre des Champs Elysees: 'Those could easily have been lost - they were retrieved from a dustbin after she died.'
The task was made all the more daunting by the fact that this was a ground-breaking ballet in which 47 dancers no longer moved in the regimented manner of classical ballet. Millicent painstakingly pieced together movements from eye-witness accounts and drawings, trying out each part by dancing it herself.
'I kept 12 notebooks and filled in the details as I got to know them. If I knew this and I knew that, what could have happened in-between?'
While Millicent struggled to piece together the choreography, Kenneth was pursuing his own researches into the Rite's designer, Nicholas Roerich.
'It's fascinating that we were working separately for a decade - not entirely unknown to each other, because I had been told about Kenneth,' says Millicent. 'Then I came to England and met Kenneth and said we should do this as a team. And then we decided to get married.'
'It seemed more efficient,' explains Kenneth. 'Roerich had designed Rite of Spring three times. He started in Russia and came to England, then moved to the East. As a result all his work was spread out, and no-one knew for sure what belonged to which ballet. …