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 Recording of the Week  Diaghilev and The Ballets Russes

One anniversary that has gone largely unnoticed so far this year is that of the Ballets Russes which was formed one hundred years ago in 1909 by the genius Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. The company was based in Paris and its productions, which combined new dance, art and music, created a huge sensation not just in the French capital, but also all over the world. These productions had a significant impact on the course of musical history, and also brought the visual arts and performing dance much more into the public eye.

Of course musically speaking the first really significant production happened the year after when, in 1910, the 27-year old Stravinsky became the revelation of the season after being asked by Diaghilev to write the music for Firebird. At the time Stravinsky was largely unknown and so Diaghilev was thus instrumental in launching Stravinsky's career in Europe and subsequently also the United States of America. Petrushka followed in 1911 and of course just two years later the premiere of The Rite of Spring caused the well-documented riot.

A scene from The Rite of Spring
A scene from The Rite of Spring

One thing that I’ve always wondered is how much the protests at The Rite of Spring premiere were caused by the music and how much Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was responsible. It has been a hard question to answer as until recently I hadn’t seen the Nijinsky choreography. The scandal was such that the run was withdrawn after only eight performances and unfortunately Nijinsky had not recorded his choreography and it soon fell into disuse.

In the late 1980s two dance historians and choreographers - Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer - set about researching and reconstructing the forgotten choreography. It has since been performed at various ballet companies around the world but only now has it finally been released on DVD and Bluray. The recording (out today on the French label Bel Air Classiques) is from Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre and is conducted by Valery Gergiev. It is coupled with Michel Fokine’s 1910 choreography of Firebird and both works are superbly performed and filmed from productions last summer. For those interested in finding out more about the history of the Ballets Russes and the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, there is also a bonus documentary that contains interviews with both Hodson and Archer.

So, back to the million-dollar question: having now seen Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring am I any closer to understanding whether it was the music or the choreography, which caused the riot?

Well no, I’m afraid not. To modern ears, with experience of nearly a hundred years of post-Rite of Spring music, it is impossible to hear the work in the same way as contemporary audiences would have done, and therefore gain any true idea of just how ‘shocking’ it must have sounded at the time. And of course the same problems exist with assessing Nijinsky’s choreography, which is further confounded in my personal case by my general lack of knowledge of early twentieth century ballet. So, rather boringly I can only concur with what most commentators seem to believe that in all likelihood it was a combination of the music and the choreography (and possibly also the subject matter) which so shocked the audience at the time. But that said, it's still fascinating to be able to watch the work in something close to the way it was first performed.

To give you a flavour, you can watch a short video extract of the Firebird production via the links below.

Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes - DVD version

Mariinsky Orchestra & Ballet, Valery Gergiev

Available Format: DVD Video

Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes - Bluray version

Mariinsky Orchestra & Ballet, Valery Gergiev

Available Format: Blu-ray