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February 20, 2013 | Theatre,

From “Rite of Spring” to “Spring Training”


We are proud to welcome back UNIVERSES to ArtsEmerson, who will be closing The Next Thing Festival with a workshop presentation of their upcoming work, Spring Training. UNIVERSES, famed for their unique style that blends blues, rhythmic poetry, hip-hop and Spanish boleros, will explore the nature of “revolutions” through examining Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. UNIVERSES has found a way to make relevant a piece of music a century old, yet another indicator that this company is The Next Thing.

The rite of spring

In 1913, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky premiered Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, in English) to a Parisian audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as part of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, with choreography by Valslav Nijinsky. The premise of the piece: after various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a Russian tribe chooses a young girl to dance herself to death as a sacrificial victim to appease the gods of spring.

Now, the type of audience regularly seen at ballets consisted of members of the wealthy upper class who coveted classical ballet and took pride in their revered primary dancers. They expected to see on the stage the same elegant, regal leaps and twirls and delicate lines to which they were so accustomed. Instead…

A little background on the piece: it is performed in two parts, The Adoration of the Earth, in which the tribe is seen in their most primitive form, partaking in rituals and chants, and The Sacrifice – which is pretty self-explanatory. This subject matter alone is, I think, enough to ruffle any wealthy 1913 Parisian audience’s feathers, but the offenses did not stop there. Stravinksy matched the music, movement and costumes to the scenario: the music was staccato, urgent, passionate and experimental with pace and volume. The movements were earthy, grounded and reminiscent of the tribal dances of long ago as opposed to the light, controlled and elegant traditional choreography. The costumes did not accentuate and show off the human physique as ballet costumes were “meant” to do, but covered every part of the dancers, suggesting an earthy quality that was almost sickening to the audience. Listen to a part of the score here.

the rite of spring 2

Its reception could not have been worse. Forgive me, for I am sugar-coating: The opening night of The Riot Rite of Spring was pure chaos, nothing short of an uproar. Picture hundreds of cultured men and women in their finest bellowing, jeering, throwing punches and objects at the orchestra and beating at each other’s heads. A member of the audience was heard yelling, “For God’s sake, call a dentist!” Another, having found himself entangled in the ruckus, recounted:

“The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.”

The audience was so shocked that by the end of the introduction it was difficult to hear the music at all. Indeed, the screams and catcalls were so great that at times the dancers on stage could not hear the music. Stravinksy was so angry he walked up to the wings of the stage for the remainder of the show, demanding that the performance continue and the audience bear witness.

Although its debut was met with a less-than-welcoming reception, it still went on to become one of the greatest compositions in recent musical history. A century later, The Rite of Spring has been described as the “beginning of modern music.” How can it be that something so odiously rejected could come to be a beacon of revolution? Today the music is regarded as intricate and passionate, while at the time it was considered vulgar and offensive.


Although small in scale, The Rite of Spring is a textbook through which we can study the nature of revolution. The music was widely opposed, for it strayed far from what was culturally permissible, yet the protesters could not stop or undo the impact it had. The Rite of Spring was the first ripple in the wave of redefining music in the twentieth century. We see the same principles in history time and time again: the French and American Revolutions, (or any change of government, for that matter), Galileo’s proposition on the workings of the solar system, the emancipation of slaves— the list goes on and on. At first, the ideas are fiercely rejected, but as time passes, change is inevitable—for better or for worse. Revolutions, protests and objections are the first line in the march to change.

Andrea Gordillo is an Emerson BFA Acting’14 student and a Dramaturgy & Outreach Assistant at ArtsEmerson.

Come see UNIVERSES explore revolutions in Spring Training on Sunday, Feb. 24 @ 12pm in the Paramount Mainstage. One performance only; free to the general public!

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