In 1910 the painter Nicholas Roerich told the composer Igor Stravinsky [pictured] of a vision he had of a pagan ritual during which a young girl dances herself to death. Taking this as his inspiration, Stravinsky started the composition of the music for a ballet for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Working in collaboration with Roerich, who also designed the sets, and with Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer – in a working relationship that was fraught with difficulties – Stravinsky repeatedly revised the music for the ballet right up until its first performance.

Le Sacre du Printemps (‘The Rite of Spring’) premièred at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 29th May 1913, conducted by Pierre Monteux. From the start, the complex discordant music and radical dance moves drew boos and whistles from the audience. Scuffles broke out between those defending the work and those who disliked it. Before long the shouting and fistfights degenerated into a fully fledged riot.

During the intermission, the Parisian police arrived but did not manage to completely quell the disturbances. Stravinsky fled backstage to find the impressario Diaghilev attempting to settle the audience by switching the house lights on and off, while Nijinsky shouted counts to the dancers who could no longer hear the orchestra. Whereas Stravinsky and Nijinsky were depressed by the reception of their work, Diaghilev was delighted possibly because the notoriety of the piece would ensure more interest in it.

There was no further disruption as the Ballets Russes completed their run of seven performances. The same ballet troupe went on to perform the piece in London later that same year, with no similar disruption. In 1924 the Rite of Spring was performed as an orchestral piece and it was included in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, released in 1940.

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