Story – May 29th, 1913 was the Paris Premier of the “ballet” the Rites of Spring at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee. Igor Stravinsky wrote the music, Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed it, Nicholas Roerich designed the costumes and set, Serge Diaghilev was the impresario (roughly producer/director).
The piece was so artistically shocking, that the audience descended into a riot, the Paris police attempted to re-establish order during the intermission with only limited success.
Why? Well, The Rites of Spring marked a moment in the transformation of the art world and how we understand what art and beauty are. Cubism and other forms of avant-garde painting in the first part of the 20th century had already started the process. They gave pictures that were bizarre and challenging rather than beautiful in the conventional sense of the time. Yet they seemed to have a kind of beauty too … It was a sort of simmering scandal, that sometimes the opposite of beauty wasn’t ugliness but some alien form of beauty.
The Rites of Spring brought this point to dance. Traditional Ballet focuses on beauty and elegance. Long lines, graceful forms, height, airiness, refinement. Dancers stretch and stand on point whenever possible, bodies curve in delicious and delicate shapes. The Rites of Spring inverted all of that. It was as much of an “anti-ballet” as it could be. The motions were low, and heavy. It imitated folk dance wherever possible, and low class rural rhythms and modes. The movements emphasized pelvis over leg, centralness over extension, rhythm over grace. It should by all balletic theory have been horribly ugly, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful, but beauty of some heretical kind, beauty contrary to the canons of conventional wisdom. It was a clearly intentional thumb in the eye of conventional ballet. It was the beginning of modern dance. On top of that the set and costumes was designed to mimic early Russian Paganism and folkways. But Stravinsky’s music was complex and adventurous using dissonance, asymmetrical rhythms, polyrhythm, polytonality, deeply influencing 20 century classical music.
Imagine you are at the premiere, you have paid good money to see a thing of beauty and grace from a strange foreign troupe of artists, and what you get challenges all your preconceptions. That may even seem old hat now. Today perhaps it seems normal for art to be cutting edge and challenging, as if the job of art is to provoke as much as to beautify. But this is precisely what was changing in those first decades of the 20th century as Cubism and modern dance began to shake up what we thought of beauty and art.
I am grateful that I can see beauty in things that are challenging to me
I am grateful that I can be surprised by new forms of beauty, even after many encounters with beauty
I am grateful that artists take risks to bring me new forms of beauty, and new insights
I am grateful that sometimes the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but an alien form of beauty
I am grateful that dance has been liberated from the strictures of ballet, while allowing ballet to remain one form of dance among many.
Other Notables for me for this day:
The births of Harry Frankfurt (philosopher, On Bullshit), Patrick Henry (patriot), G.K Chesterton (writer), Danny Elfman(musician), Melissa Ethelridge (musician), the death of Bahaiullah(founder of Bahai), Hoover Dam completed, and the election of Boris Yeltsin to Russian SFSR (marking the beginning of the End of Soviet Communism).