I can't let 2013 go by without noting the 100th anniversary of the performance that came to be viewed as Day 1 of the era of modern art. It wasn't really that, of course. Schoenberg's much stranger Pierrot Lunaire had been performed more than six months earlier, and cubist painting had been under way for several years. But it became a sort of mythological event, like the quarrel between Galileo and the Church, marking the beginning of a period when modern art became something shocking and difficult, frequently very consciously so.
Laura Jacobs published this retrospective in the May issue of The New Criterion, which provides a lot of fascinating detail about that first performance. Toward the end of the piece she mentions the reconstruction of the ballet staged in the 1980s by the Joffrey Ballet, which was said to be about as close as we could hope to come to the original. I saw it on TV at the time but couldn't remember much about it, other than that it was all very un-ballet-like, and that it reminded me of what is often represented as American Indian dancing. Jacobs mentions that it's on YouTube, so I went looking for it. Here it is, in three parts, each ten minutes long.
(There is also an all-in-one copy of the video, but it seems a bit dim compared to the ones above.)
This time around I found it very powerful. I don't know exactly what's going on in most of it, but you don't really need to know anything except that it's a ceremony marking the beginning of spring in pre-Christian Russia, and that it culminates in a maiden dancing herself to death. I always understood why the music created a sensation, and now I see why the ballet did, too. I don't know whether this strange stiff stomping and jerking had any precedent in ballet, but it must have been quite a shock to anyone who went in expecting traditional ballet and was met with something that, as Jacobs says, "was called a ballet, but...did not attempt to dispel or transcend gravity as classical ballets were expected to do; instead, his dancers bowed down under a cosmic weight, burdened by it and in awe of it."
I must say, too, that it strikes me as evidence of a cultural sickness. The music is a great work of art, and I've loved it since I first heard it in college. But this attempt, in which Stravinsky and Diaghilev and Nijinsky were certainly not alone, to regain some kind of authenticity by reaching back to a brutal past, was not an indicator of cultural health. It bespeaks a weariness with the whole idea of civilization. Those who were shocked may have been shocked for the wrong reasons, but it does seem now an indicator of something amiss. I want to say this carefully, being very clear that I do not think The Rite has anything to do with violent movements such as Nazism, or was in any sense a cause of them, but it is really not surprising that a civilization which was weary of itself and feeling, in the highest reaches of its culture, the call of the primitive might begin to develop, in the political realm, an attraction to actual violence as a means of escape from and destruction of a sterile order.