A riot sprang from The Rite of Spring

ONE hundred years ago this month Stravinsky debuted the The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Commissioned for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with choreography by the legendary Nijinksy, its theme was pagan Russia and human sacrifice to the creative surge of spring.

Highly unconventional music, strange, unnatural movement, cacophony and seeming confusion were like a slap in the face to the fashionable audience in the expensive seats, and like a breath of fresh air to the student thinkers in the gallery. Within the first few minutes, shocked attendees booed the deliberate inharmony, and their booing became stronger with every oddly angled arm and leg, heavy leap and fall. This wasn’t Swan Lake, this wasn’t Sleeping Beauty. What was Ballets Russes thinking?

Excited supporters of this new style argued with the old brigade. Brawls broke out, and the police were summoned. They couldn’t control the audience, and rioting continued throughout the second half. The next day, most reviews were damning. Le Figaro’s critic, dismissing the work as “a laborious and puerile barbarity,” was typical. Others saw the new ideas: the leading theatrical magazine, Comoedia, thought the performance superb, and regarded the riots as a rowdy debate between two ill-mannered factions. The riots ensured that, just like Ireland’s Playboy of the Western World, The Rite of Spring was immortalised. Today, it is a milestone in ballet.

Now, the Dublin Dance Festival is celebrating the centenary of that infamous first performance, giving this year’s programme a highly dramatic opening with its Stravinsky Evening, on May 14 and 15, at the Abbey. For two nights, the Saarinen Company, from Helsinki, will stage two spectacular and disturbing pieces, Hunt, and Petrushka, to Stravinsky’s music. This time, audiences are more likely to storm the stage in delight than throw punches at one another.

The founder of Saarinen, Tero Saarinen, is one of Europe’s leading dance-makers and has created work for major companies, such as Lyon Opera Ballet, Batsheva Dance Company and Nederlands Dans Theater. “Dance is my attempt to understand human nature and its multiple manifestations,” says the Finnish choreographer.

Saarinen is known for his unique movement language, which plays with balance, and off-balance.

His choreographic style reflects influences ranging from Butoh and martial arts to classical ballet and Western, contemporary dance. His works, which are internationally acclaimed, are characteristically total artworks: combinations of unique choreography, strong performers, striking visuals and, often, live music. The primary aim of his group, which was founded in 1996, is to promote a humane world view, and basic human values, through dance, while increasing people’s understanding of their physicality and its significance for a good life.

Saarinen also draws deeply on strong and vibrant traditions of his native Finland, where the wildness of the landscape and the harshness of the climate parallel those of its near-neighbour, Russia. Amid these miles of forests and frozen lakes, spring is not hailed as a pleasantry, but a sign of survival, even today, and that is echoed in these works.

‘Hunt’ is a heart-stopping solo piece danced by Saarinen himself. Set to The Rite of Spring, the dancer is both the hunter and the hunted. The unstoppable rhythm of the music is matched by sinuous movements, while Saarinen’s body acts as a canvas for a kaleidoscope of light (including strobe) and live, multi-media projections.

‘Petrushka’, in contrast, is a love triangle played out with all the wit of a silent movie comedy and the colour of the fairground. Two classical accordionists play the score live on stage, in an extraordinary version of Stravinsky’s tragic ballet, in which a puppet’s love for a beautiful fellow-figure is doomed to heartbreak.

We’re unlikely to have seen anything like these before.

* Stravinsky Evening, Tue/Wed, May 14/15 at the Abbey Theatre. 7.30pm start.


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