Made of the Rite stuff

It was the most celebrated theatrical brawl of the 20th century. The date: 29 May 1913. The setting: impresario Gabriel Astruc’s brand new Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The occasion: the first performance by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes of Le Sacre du printemps, its score by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky.

My witness is Dame Marie Rambert, one of the founding figures of British Ballet, employed by Diaghilev to help Nijinsky deal with the complexities of Stravinsky’s music, and a dancer in the only eight performances this crucial ballet received.

Count Harry Kessler, a compulsive diarist, fixed the event exactly: “In the evening, the premiere of The Rite of Spring. A completely new choreography and music ... a thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. The public, the most elegant house I have ever seen in Paris – aristocracy, diplomats, the demi-monde – was from the beginning restless, laughing, whistling, making jokes, here and there some stood up. Stravinsky who sat with his wife behind us, raced outside like one possessed after scarcely five minutes ... D’ Annunzio and Debussy in Astruc’s loge [box] got into a quarrel with a neighbouring loge, screaming in their faces ‘What a bunch of imbeciles’! ... And above this crazy din there continued the storm of salvos of laughter, and scornful clapping while the music raged on, and on stage the dancers, without flinching, danced fervently in prehistoric fashion.”

Rambert had been engaged to assist Nijinsky in getting to grips with Stravinsky’s score. For three years she had studied with Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, whose “eurhythmics” system of musical analysis through movement, as she put it, “made you aware of every note of the music”.

Diaghilev and Nijinsky had come to Dalcroze’s academy near Dresden, watched classes and asked that the 20-year-old Rambert help Nijinsky. When, in 1962, Kenneth MacMillan was preparing his Covent Garden production of Sacre, I recalled that Rambert – whom I knew slightly – had been Nijinsky’s assistant, and I asked her if she would tell me about his staging.

And so, one afternoon at her house in Camden Hill, she spoke for more than two hours, memories flooding back, demonstrating steps and positions from Nijinsky’s choreography. “With a huge German rehearsal pianist – we called him ‘Kolossal’ – I would count out the music into sections and then go through it with Nijinsky.”

Rambert produced her copy of the piano reduction of the score on which she had written rehearsal notes as Nijinsky spoke them: “The Old Woman jumps on the spot”; “Here the Old Woman falls into the circle of Youths – she falls on her knees, with her little feet up. I wrote down what Nijinsky said, and he said ‘little feet’.” “They dance holding their little bellies”.

His idea was of a community far away in time, very primitive. Their dances were simple steps, stamping and jumping, often with only one position of the arms, toes turned in, divided into groups who moved without altering a basic shape. “They stamped and jumped to make the earth fertile, and one of the tribal Elders lies on the ground and kisses it”, with Nijinsky determined to reproduce in movement every note of the score. “We had started rehearsals when Stravinsky arrived in Budapest to play the score for us. His tempi were very different from Kolossal’s – faster – and Nijinsky said that it was impossible to dance his choreography at these speeds. But the tempi were eventually accepted!”

Work continued, and by the time the Ballets Russes arrived in Monte Carlo to prepare for the Paris season, the cast was called for rehearsals in the morning, in the afternoon and, if there was no performance, in the evening. Nijinsky’s inability to explain, to externalise what he wanted from his casts produced storms – “The next person who walks through this rehearsal, I will kill!”

With the final dance for Maroussia Piltz, the sacrificial Maiden, Nijinsky prepared the dance himself. “He had no idea of the power of his own movements – they were epic, they had an incredible force. Pilz’s re-creation, which satisfied Nijinsky, seemed to me a pale reflection of his intensity”.

As for the first night, Rambert remembered the unexpected nature of the public reaction. “The noise was so great that the dancers could not hear the orchestra for most of the time” and they were frantically counting aloud to keep together, while Nijinsky stood on a chair in the downstage wing frenziedly shouting and conducting.

When the moment came for Piltz to do the sacrificial dance, “she had to stand, hands pressed to the side of her face” (and I still see Rambert standing, bent forward, both hands together just below her right cheek) “and quiver for 32 bars”. There came a cry from the gallery: “Un docteur!” Then another: “Un dentiste!” and a third: “Deux dentistes!” The performance ended in a riot in the auditorium, with Nijinsky saying to Rambert: “This idiot public!”.

Because of the monumental impact of Stravinsky’s music and its opening night drama, Sacre as a dance score has invited many (too many, bitter experience tells me) later stagings. A handful I have seen, those by MacMillan, Massine, Pina Bausch and the recent Michael Keegan Dolan production, have not betrayed Stravinsky’s score. But still haunting our understanding is Nijinsky’s original – unknown yet immortal.

Rambert summed up Nijinsky as creator for me by stressing that he said in effect to his dancers: “I do not want your reactions”. He sought a choreographic form severe and precise – “the severest form”. Of the massive nature of his genius, both as dancer and creator, Dame Marie Rambert was never in doubt.

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