Last weekend, the College hosted an exciting centennial tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s classic and controversial opera, The Rite of Spring. Though the ballet met controversy at its inception, even causing a now-famous riot at the Paris Opera House, it has since become a classic. Every famous choreographer has created a dance to Stravinsky’s music, and every well-known dancer has performed in some contemporary rendition. More locally significant, the event marked an unprecedented collaboration between the College’s departments of theatre and dance and the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, in which many students participate. It was a diverse and informative event, allowing for a true appreciation of Stravinsky’s landmark achievement.
W. Anthony Shepard, chair of the department of music, spent the first part of the performance giving the audience historical background for The Rite of Spring. He discussed how Stravinsky bucked the traditions of his day by eliminating romance from the ballet. The play, after all, ends in a human sacrifice. Though described as a ballet today, the choreography is hardly typical of such a performance. Movements must jerk along with the irregular tune of the music, and dancers stomp their feet in hard motions rather than tip-toeing gracefully en pointe.
Shepard made use of a piano right next to his podium to point out interesting irregularities in the score, such as Stravinsky’s avoidance of pattern. He also demonstrated how the instruments often perform at at different, frequently changing meters. Using a slide presentation, Shepard described The Rite of Spring’s original performance, showing photographs of the original costumes and videos of Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography. Described as “primitivist imagination gone wild,” that first performance showed clear inspiration from the American “Wild West Shows” that toured Europe at this time period, showing a narrow glimpse into the lives of cowboys and Native Americans on the frontier.
On a heartwarming note, Shepard brought in an anecdote from his own life, noting that he first heard The Rite of Spring as a thirteen-year-old boy after his clarinet teacher gave him a copy of the record. Though informative and amusing, Shepard’s introduction felt long, and for a production intended to pay tribute to The Rite of Spring, there did not seem to be enough of the actual music.
In the next phase of the performance, Elizabeth Wright, artist associate in piano, and Doris Stevenson, Lyell B. Clay artist-in-residence, accompanied student dancers on piano as they performed modernized versions of three The Rite of Spring dances choreographed by faculty in the department of dance. The dancers did not wear costumes, dressing only in simple grey and black leotards and leggings – it was all about the music and their movements. One of the hallmarks of The Rite of Spring is that the dance is not “enslaved” to the music. Though a leap may match up in time with the music, a dancer may do the same leap again even if the meter has changed. The choreography was complicated and dynamic. In the second excerpt, a particularly striking set of steps occurred as the dancers entered into one tightly-knit group, stomping and pushing into one another as they hunched and grabbed. Suddenly, they seemed to explode from one another, pushing out into all directions like an atom bomb, making jerking movements all the while. Overall, the student dancers were incredibly impressive, tackling clearly difficult choreography with skill and enthusiasm.
To close, Shepard took the stage once again to demonstrate the pervasive influence of The Rite of Spring in modern media. He showed three clips from the Disney classic Fantasia, which were all set to music from the Stravinsky classic. The movements on screen followed every note, making it seem as though the music had been created to compliment the animation, not the other way around. Shepard also showed a clip from American World War II propaganda that utilized the threatening, ominous tone of the music to emphasize the danger of the Japanese. It is actually incredible how often Stravinsky’s tunes are used in popular culture: You probably know the music of The Rite of Spring without realizing it.
After a short intermission, Part II of the performance, a rendition of The Rite of Spring as performed by the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, commenced. Before long, however, something strange happened. Rustlings in the audience grew louder and louder, and the sounds of chicken clucks and whistles emerged from the crowd. Suddenly, about 10 people dressed in full period garb, opera glasses and all, burst forth and demanded a stop to the performance, imitating the legendary riot of 1913. Some of the older members of the audience were not impressed, grouchily asking for the actors to sit down. Though it felt contrived and could have used a few more participants, the “riot” was overall an amusing addition to the program.
At this point, finally, The Rite of Spring was performed. Through the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra’s excellent execution, as directed by Robert Feldman, it became clear why this piece of music is such a legend. The meter keeps everyone on their toes, never knowing what will happen in a minute, or even in a second. It is beautiful in its violence and strong in its delicacy.