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A 'Rite of Spring' that Nijinsky and Stravinsky would recognize

The Joffrey brings its re-creation of the original 1913 ballet, which caused a stir at its Paris debut, to L.A. It's all part of events honoring the centennial of the iconic work.

January 26, 2013|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • The Joffrey Ballet returns with groundbreaking production of original 1913 Nijinsky-Stravinsky "The Rite of Spring."
The Joffrey Ballet returns with groundbreaking production of original… (Herbert Migdoll / The Music…)

When the Joffrey Ballet debuted its reconstructed "The Rite of Spring" in Los Angeles in fall 1987, it received a seismic welcome — a 5.9 on the Richter scale, to be exact.

The morning after "Rite's" opening at the Music Center, a major earthquake struck Southern California. The Whittier Narrows quake, with an epicenter in the San Gabriel Valley, shook buildings in downtown L.A. and could be felt as far away as Las Vegas.

The Oct. 1 temblor caused widespread damage in the area, though no subsequent performances of "Rite" were canceled by the Joffrey, then a resident company at the Music Center.

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For those involved with the production, the quake seemed to confirm a long-held historical belief: Wherever the "Rite" goes, major upheaval follows. This week, it returns to the city that has a long association with the music and its composer.

"The Rite of Spring," which composer Igor Stravinsky debuted in Paris in 1913 with the Ballets Russes, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The piece, whose French title is "Le Sacre du Printemps," is widely regarded as one of the most important ballets of the 20th century.

But in the annals of world premieres, the "Rite" debut on May 29, 1913, was probably the most inauspicious opening in ballet history.

Angry patrons — bewildered by Stravinsky's strange music and maybe more so by Vaslav Nijinsky's primitive choreography — famously rose up in rebellion several minutes into the performance. Punches were thrown. The police were called in.

History books quote one attendee, artist Valentine Gross Hugo, recalling that "it was as if the theater had been shaken by an earthquake."

Stravinsky would write in his memoirs that the public rejection, which he described as "a terrific uproar," was too much for him to bear. A few days later, he came down with typhoid and ended up in a nursing home for six weeks.

In the 100 years since it debuted, "Rite" has gone from being controversial to being widely performed, and it is usually presented as an orchestral work. It became a trademark piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic under then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, who programmed the "Rite" for the inaugural concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003.

"It's one of the very rare works of art that seems eternally young. It hasn't lost any of its power or freshness or shock value," said Salonen, on the phone from London, where he is principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

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The centenary of "Rite" will see festivals and celebrations in honor of Stravinsky around the world. Starting Friday, the Music Center will commemorate the anniversary with the Joffrey's touring revival of its landmark 1987 "Rite," which was the first major attempt to replicate Nijinsky's lost choreography.

Based on meticulous research, the Joffrey's staging tries to create what audiences in Paris experienced in 1913 minus the cracked monocles and trampled evening gowns. The Music Center also will present a festival devoted to "Rite" spread over several months that will include recitals, lectures and an exhibition.

As part of the festival, the Music Center will host a large-scale digital installation called "Re-Rite" from the Philharmonia Orchestra in August. The installation, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, will simulate the experience of sitting in the orchestra, led by Salonen, as it performs the piece.

"Rite" — both music and dance — evokes pagan rituals from medieval Russia and is divided into two parts: "The Adoration of the Earth" centers on the celebration of spring, while "The Sacrifice" follows a virginal girl, known as the Chosen One, who dances herself to death in the ballet's climax.

The controversy surrounding "Rite" didn't last long. Seven years after it premiered, the Ballets Russes presented a new production with choreography by Léonide Massine and financed by fashion designer Coco Chanel. It was a success.

Twenty years later, "Rite" had become sufficiently mainstream that Walt Disney used the piece for the dinosaur sequence in the 1940 animated feature "Fantasia."

"Rite" is arguably Stravinsky's most famous work. Other choreographers who have created their distinctive "Rite" productions include Martha Graham, Pina Bausch and Maurice Béjart.

Still, today "Rite" has "extreme importance in the dance world," said Tamara Levitz, a professor of musicology at UCLA.

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As an orchestral work, she said it remains "iconic" even though it has become something of a concert war horse, "the equivalent of 'All You Need Is Love' by the Beatles."

'Rite' in L.A.

Los Angeles holds a special place in "Rite" history — and not just because the Russian-born Stravinsky lived here for nearly 30 years starting in 1940.

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