On the night of Thursday, May 29, 1913, the pioneering Russian ballet corps Ballet Russes performs Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees in Paris.
In founding the Ballet Russes in 1909, the flamboyant impresario Serge Diaghilev was searching for his own version of the Gesamtkunstwerk (or total art form), a concept introduced by the enormously influential German composer Richard Wagner in his book Oper und Drama (1850-51). Early in the second decade of a new century, Diaghilev saw ballet, and indeed all art, as a means of deliverance from the confines of morality and convention that had ruled Western society in the 19th century. This kind of avant-garde sensibility was widespread in Europe by 1913—particularly in Germany, the birthplace of the era’s most prominent philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings articulated both the sense of chaos and destruction and the call for a violent rebirth of modern society that Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinsky strove to portray in Le Sacre.
When the curtain went up in the newly constructed—and architecturally controversial—Theatre de Champs-Elysees on May 29, 1913, it seemed all of Paris society was there. There was great anticipation surrounding Diaghilev’s newest production; advance publicity for the ballet had called it real and true art, art that disregarded the traditional boundaries of space and time. Almost as soon as the curtain rose, the audience began to react strongly to the performance, starting with whistles and proceeding to hisses and howls as the dancers appeared. Originally titled The Victim, Stravinsky’s ballet portrayed a pagan celebration in which a virgin sacrifices herself to the god of spring. The music was dissonant and strange, while the choreography by Nijinsky marked a radical departure from classical ballet, with the dancers’ toes turned in and their limbs thrust at sharp angles instead of smooth, rounded curves.
As Carl Van Vechten, drama critic for the New York Sun later wrote, the unruly audience became as much a part of the performance as the dancers and musicians: Some forty of the protestants were forced out of the theater but that did not quell the disturbance. The lights in the auditorium were fully turned on but the noise continued and I remember Mlle. Piltz [the dancer portraying the sacrificial maiden] executing her strange dance of religious hysteria on a stage dimmed by the blazing light in the auditorium, seemingly to the accompaniment of the disjointed ravings of a mob of angry men and women. The subsequent coverage in the press of the ballet—which is now considered one of the great musical achievements of the 20th century—was resoundingly negative; the music was dismissed as mere noise and the dance as an ugly parody of traditional ballet.
In light of the horrifically destructive conflict that exploded in Europe barely one year later, the violent reaction to Le Sacre de Printemps came to seem like a logical and inescapable response to such an expression of nihilism and chaos. Against a background of growing nationalist fervor across the continent, French audiences were understandably anxious—about their own country’s declining influence in the face of Germany’s growing strength, about the seeming failure of traditional notions of morality and order and about what was to come. A year later, during the July Crisis, the French critic Maurice Dupont praised the sanity of the French reaction, calling Le Sacre a Dionysian orgy dreamed of by Nietzsche and called forth by his prophetic wish to be the beacon of a world hurtling towards death—a wish that would soon be fulfilled on the battlefields of World War I.