The Rite of Spring Riot
On the night of May 29, 1913, an elegant Parisian crowd assembled for the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s eagerly anticipated new ballet, “The Rite of Spring.” The opening seemed promising, but then the violins kicked in with a pulsing chord so dissonant that it made spectators wince. As the orchestra continued, the audience hissed and booed. They rose to their feet and shouted—some defending the music, but most denouncing it. People began whacking each other with canes, umbrellas, and, before long, bare fists. Stravinsky’s musical revolution had arrived.
On opening night, the scene was chaotic. Only minutes into the performance, the audience’s reaction was so loud that the ballerinas couldn’t hear the music. By intermission, the police had arrived, and the theater manager took to the stage, begging the audience to calm down.
The truth is that the spectators were reacting as much to the dancing as to the music. “The Rite of Spring” contained no elegant arabesques or ballerinas in tutus. Instead, the dancers moved more with their hips than their feet, evoking something raw and primitive. What’s more, they dressed as pagan tribesmen, wearing rough tunics and stylized masks on their faces. It was the antithesis of classical ballet. In one scene, the dancers encircle a girl who stands transfixed with fear. Tribal elders swarm around this “chosen one” until she begins to leap frantically into the air. Her dance becomes more and more frenzied until she finally collapses dead—a ritual sacrifice to spring.