A Century of Rites: The Making of an Avant-Garde Tradition


Since the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913, there were produced lots of choreographic works to the celebrated Stravinsky music. This paper argues that The Rite of Spring, precisely because it is a lost ballet, comprises a body of ideas rather than a detailed choreographic script, and that this conceptual freedom allows both for the ballet’s reinvention and for the persistence of ideas associated with the original. One group of ideas centers on the ballet’s transgressiveness — its primitivism, violence, modernity, and repudiation of traditional ballet aesthetics. From this perspective The Rite is a model of formal radicalism. At the same time The Rite belongs to ballet’s canon. It was produced by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, an heir to the nineteenth-century Franco- Russian tradition and the progenitor of its 20th-century descendants. Also its central conceit — the death of the maiden — has a long ballet history. From the first, The Rite declared its centrality to ballet history, even as it rejected the conventions of the past.

Since 1913, choreographers have approached The Rite from numerous vantage points. Some have emphasized its violence; others its sexuality, primitivism, and terror. A few have thrown out the original scenario and the full score; most have discarded its ethnographic trimmings. Although most productions stress the ensemble, there have been a few heroic solo versions. Initially, ballet choreographers, albeit those identified as modernists, created the versions that followed Nijinsky’s Rite. But whatever the choreographer’s aesthetic position, The Rite continues to be a work that insists upon its modernity, its engagement with the contemporary world.