For a work that changed the course of dance and introduced an explosion of modernism into a conventional art form, Vaslav Nijinsky’s The spring ritual had a surprisingly short shelf life. Despite more than 130 fraught and complicated rehearsals as the dancers struggled to get to grips with the stylized steps and Stravinsky’s radical rhythms, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes only performed it 10 times before it was consigned to the history books.
Even the famous riot that premiered in Paris on May 29, 1913 is a subject of debate. In his new book Diaghilev’s Empiresays Rupert Christiansen that there are over 100 accounts of the night’s events and that they are “vastly contradictory and even downright contradictory… Some hardly notice the fuss.”
But there is no doubt that from the moment the floating bassoon begins to play the melody that marks the opening, music has moved into the heart of Western culture, its scorching power untouched by time. I heard Stravinsky’s score and read about Nijinsky’s Rite long before I saw a version of the ballet, I was engrossed in descriptions of its creation – where a young Marie Rambert was recruited to help with the counts and then quietly fell in love with its creator – and looking at photos of the dancers in poses with twisted -in legs and uncomfortable felt costumes.
The first production I ever saw was Kenneth MacMillan’s at the Royal Ballet, made in 1962 and now somewhat dated, with his Sidney Nolan designs and dancers in long matted wigs and pointe shoes, like predatory insects.
The music always remains exciting, but the ultimate fascination Rite is how far-reaching its inspiration has been: two new versions, one by South African choreographer Dada Masilo, the other by British dance creator Seeta Patel, are about to tour the UK. Both have their roots far beyond Western ballet and now take their place alongside more than 150 danced versions of the ballet. Rite already exists and dates back to 1920 when Léonide Massine made one to replace Nijinsky’s original.
That Rites The 1930 American premiere starred a young Martha Graham, who created her own version at the age of 90. American choreographer Lester Horton moved the action to the Wild West; the seminal Mary Wigman and the dramatic Maurice Béjart emphasized the erotic qualities of a piece that culminates in a virgin dancing herself to death. from Michael Clark Mmm… added music by the Sex Pistols and Stephen Sondheim and had his mother deliver him on stage.
The majority, however, follow the pattern charted by Stravinsky in collaboration with Russian mystic and folk ritual expert Nicholas Roerich, who conceived of the work as a pagan rite in which a tribe of elders welcome spring by sacrificing a chosen girl to guarantee the continued fertility of the earth. The score is divided into sections with titles such as Procession of the Sage and Glorification of the Chosen One.
Perhaps the most influential modern version was created in 1975 by dance theater pioneer Pina Bausch. Performed on an earth-covered floor, it emphasizes the patriarchal, animalistic nature of the ritual, depicting a terrified young woman sacrificed to appease the misogyny of the male elders. A touring production of Bausch’s play, performed by a specially formed company of dancers recruited from 14 African countries, was one of three versions of Rite last year at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London. (Dancing in the twilighta film capturing his creation in Senegal in the midst of Covid returns to Sadler’s Wells’s Digital Stage this month.)
This was followed by the reinvention of leading Swedish choreographer Mats Ek for the English National Ballet dat Rite as an intimate family drama, with the theme of an arranged marriage. Finally, flamenco dancer Israel Galván performed a devastating solo flamenco interpretation that seemed to engage in conversation with the splintering complexity of Stravinsky’s score. Both are choreographers who find new ways to interpret the music and storyline. “I wanted to tell the story in a way that makes it mine, the way I read the music,” Ek told me at the time. “The music is my guide, and I have to have my own encounter with it.”
The same was true for Wayne McGregor Narite, first seen in 2018 and revived last year by La Scala Ballet, who used the broken harmonies as another route through the music and set the piece in a world gripped by a climate crisis, where a mother’s sacrifice can be fruitless. McGregor consciously recognized the history he was grappling with. “It recognizes the Rites I have seen, but also allude to a kind of retinal burn of current themes and ideas, and to a speculative future.”
It is the weight of the themes that attracted Dada Masilo The spring ritual and provided the springboard for The offer, which will have its UK premiere at Brighton Festival on 21 February and will tour the UK afterwards. Masilo, who grew up in Soweto, and who has built a reputation around reinterpretations of classics such as Giselle And Swan Lakedanced an excerpt from Bausch’s Rite when she was a student at the contemporary dance school Parts in Brussels.
“I was very intrigued,” says Masilo. “I had never heard Stravinsky before and so that was the beginning for me, because I like complex rhythms and precisely the disharmony, going from soft to loud without being able to count. I never count music. I think you have to do it by feel.”
Although the music was her starting point, she threw it overboard for her performance. Masilo asked her musicians to listen to the Stravinsky and absorb its intensity, but then compose their own music. Her choreography is based on Tswana, the traditional dance of Botswana, where her family comes from. “I wanted to find a story that wasn’t so linear – not just dance, dance, dance and then a girl dancing herself to death. I wanted the audience to see the virgin’s journey and how the community is preparing. Mine Sacrifice is influenced by the rituals and traditions of South Africa, where sacrifice is very important.”
Masilo brings joy to the interpretation, shows a community at work and then reveals the necessity of sacrifice for renewal: it is a mother who brings her child to the ritual, and the interpretation is full of sorrow and mourning for the loss of children in rather than the violence of many other versions. It was inspired in part by the death of Masilo’s grandmother, whose funeral she was unable to attend.
“It’s a grief and a healing,” she says. “We all make sacrifices in our lives and I think this sacrifice is about cleansing, about something that has to be given to the earth for something to grow, for something to happen. When you look at what is going on in the world right now, it feels like the whole world just needs to be cleansed.”
This idea of taking one of the core pieces of the Western canon and introducing it to new cultural influences also extends to Seeta Patel’s version of Rite, which is in Sadler’s Wells next month, with a UK tour later in the year. This piece, for 12 dancers, six men and six women, is an extended version of her 2019 work and is accompanied live by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Patel’s premise was very specific. She combines contemporary dance with the classical Indian dance bharatanatyam, traditionally a solo form. When she decided to explore its potential in group dancing, she consciously experimented by putting it on Western scores much choreographed by Western choreographers. The spring ritual struck a chord. “It just cried out to be made,” she says. “There is so much in the music that is symbiotic with bharatanatyam.”
She worked by listening to the piano score played by a pianist friend, who explained, measure by measure, how to break the diabolical rhythm scheme into beats. Patel then translated it into the counts you’d associate with South Indian classical music to aid her dancers in the piece. “With large, symphonic Western scores, there are so many things going on at the same time. It’s fun to pick that out and create an image that ebbs and flows, that lifts and flies.”
Patel’s version, in which the chosen one becomes a deity, places sacrifice as part of a cyclical process of birth, death, and renewal—and, she says, traces it back to the pagan ideas that influenced Roerich. “Christianity and the Abrahamic religions are very terminal,” she says. “You die and you go to paradise. While the idea of birth, life and destruction is deeply rooted in paganism to create rebirth. It really lends itself to a non-Western philosophy.”
Diaghilev’s first press release for the incendiary bomb Rite promised “a truly new sensation that will no doubt lead to heated debate”. More than 100 years later, it is as important as ever.
The film Dancing in the twilight is available for free on demand on the Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage, February 17 to March 13