The Riots of ‘The Rite’: Circa embraces the thrill of Stravinsky’s work
On Jan. 30, Australian acrobatic ensemble Circa will bring the world’s first-ever circus setting of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” to Macky Auditorium in a piece titled “Sacre.” Historically performed as a ballet, Stravinsky’s intense rhythmic composition is actually uniquely suited to the athleticism of a circus performance.
“Circus adds a level of extreme physicality far beyond what dancers can do,” writes Circa Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz in his notes on the piece. “These are ferociously committed acrobats performing like they’re about to die. Essentially their pain is your pleasure.
“‘Sacre’ is a powerful acrobatic setting driven by the primal energy of Stravinsky’s score,” he continues. “It’s 35 minutes of bodies ricocheting, cascading and doing very intense things to the score of Stravinsky’s pulsating, tribal ritual music.”
What makes this heated approach to “The Rite” so apt can be found in the piece’s origins.
Inspired by pagan rituals and the seductive power of Spring, Stravinsky once wrote that his inspiration for the music came from a vision of a young girl “dancing herself to death.” At the time, it was unique to the point of disturbing artists and audiences alike.
When Stravinsky showed “The Rite” to fellow artist Pierre Monteux—who eventually conducted the premiere—Monteux walked out on him, refusing to work together. More than once in rehearsal, members of Monteux’s orchestra were so perplexed by the score that they attempted to fix what they perceived to be errors on the page. They repeatedly broke out into nervous laughter while playing.
The movement, too, was groundbreaking. The controversial composition was always intended to be set to choreography and Vaslav Nijinsky created the original movement for the ballet’s premiere. Nijinsky faced tension from the start. Stravinsky recounted fears about putting his work in the hands of the up-and-comer, who already had a bit of controversy surrounding his overtly sexual work style. What’s more, according to Stravinsky, the dance ensemble and Nijinsky found themselves in conflict regularly.
Not surprisingly, then, the entire process ran behind schedule. But eventually, the ballet opened—and the 1913 premiere of “The Rite of Spring” became the stuff of legend.
According to first-hand reports of the evening, the audience nearly rioted in the halls of Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées once the “The Rite” began. Within minutes the audience began to laugh and heckle the performers, reportedly so loudly that they drowned out the music altogether. Dozens of people walked out or were removed from their seats.
Nevertheless, the orchestra carried on, with Nijinsky himself supposedly leaping on stage to shout bar numbers to the dancers (who could no longer hear their cues). Poor Stravinsky hid in the wings.
Still, all press is good press, as they say. Though “The Rite” was reviewed as barbaric and “the work of a madman,” rumors quickly spread about the epic performance. Critics lied about whether they were at the premiere; fellow composers claimed to have walked out even if they didn’t attend. Others disagreed about which part—the music or the movement—was problematic. As much as he could have in 1913, Stravinsky went viral.
Coupled with the tantalizing press and the uniquely visceral reaction it inspired in audiences, the ballet went on to finish its run and perform another in London before cementing itself in the 20th-century canon. Indeed, Stravinsky’s riot-inducing work has come to be considered one of the most influential pieces of music of the last hundred years.
“We tend to think of ourselves as a civilized culture but ‘The Rite of Spring’ proves we are far more animal than anything else,” concludes Lifschitz about his new interpretation. “Forces of nature run through us, shape us and connect us as a species. For me, that’s what ‘Sacre’ is about at its core and it’s thrilling to be confronted with that.”
Circa will perform “Sacre” in Macky Auditorium on Jan. 30. Tickets start at just $23.