I was a music composition major in college. You know those band geeks with closet-sized speakers who blasted manly classical music with tons of tympani and gongs that rattled your heart in your chest cavity?
Who would echo the dorm hallways with symphonic tuba, trombone and French horn that would blow a metalhead’s mane of hair back off his ears with a massive sonic wall of brass (usually at 10 am on a Sunday morning)? Guilty. If your bong rattled off your desk and shattered because of vibrations from next door thundering the chorus of Carmina Burana’s “Oh Fortuna,” Gustav Holt’s Mars from The Planets, or anything by Mussorgsky—sorry, but that was me.
But when it came to classical composers that kicked ass as hard as any heavy metal Yngwie Malmstein virtuoso guitar solo, it was always Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky—specifically The Rite of Spring.
I spent two years studying Stravinsky’s music and have loved that piece for the last 30 years, even though I’ve never seen a dance performance of it. Truth be told, I’ve never seen any ballet performance (for which I imagine Jaime Simpson, the dance editor for AltDaily, is wishing she had not called in sick and left me this review to write about now).
The Rite of Spring is a singular pivotal moment in modern music/dance, and when it was first performed in Paris on May 29, 1913 the police were called to prevent a full-scale riot by theatre-goers who were not prepared for the atonal music and the controversial modern dance movements.
Like several of my friends in cities around the country, I attended a centennial performance of The Rite of Spring tonight. Our local performance was at Chrysler Hall, featuring the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Richmond Ballet, and put on by the Virginia Arts Festival.
As the announcements were made, the lights dimmed and the music began, my first thoughts were, “What the hell is this? It sounds like Vivaldi?” Sure, it was beautiful and the traditional ballet was quite charming, but it wasn’t until the lights came back up and I looked at the program that I saw that The Rite of Spring was after the admission. The second performance was a ballet work by Stravinsky and the dissonances and melodies were more what I was prepared for; but it was still pretty tame. Yet, the dance was more lyrical and interpretative, and I found myself smiling at passages and enjoying the performance more.
As the curtain rose on the familiar opening notes of The Rite of Spring, it took me several seconds to realize that the shape I saw on stage was a dancer. What followed wasn’t ballet as I had ever seen in broadcasts. In fact, it was the entire pop culture of my entire lifetime. As male dancers squared off in a fight I thought, “Oh Michael Jackson ripped off that whole sequence for his ‘Beat It’ video.” As the orchestra drove maniacally though dramatic phrase after phrase I thought, “there would be no Star Wars theme if that hadn’t been written” and “wow, that spawned the soundtrack of every Harrison Ford movie and espionage thriller ever made.” With each dancer’s pose I thought, “oh, I hate that move in my yoga classes. Ha, P90X completely ripped off that sequence right there! Hey, that was a solo jazz move I know. Holy crap, that was exactly like a UFC fight entrance!” Then I realized the dancers were nearly naked and driven solely by primordial instinct. I thought, “Wow, that dude is ripped, why aren’t more of my gal friends here? Heck, that guy wrestling with him is even more ripped—why aren’t more of my gay friends here? Wow, those gals doing that heavy metal, head-banging choreographed mosh pit with their long hair flying wildly and those six packs are gorgeous. Those are ballet dancers? They’re bad ass! This is some righteous man ballet right here!”
Then it struck me that it was amazing that Parisians hadn’t burned their entire city down a hundred years ago. What I was witnessing was unthinkable and changed everything that night in Paris! Disney may have used The Rite of Spring in Fantasia in 1940, but in 1913, this must have been sheer madness!
Through it all the tympani thundered, the brass washed over the audience in waves, and the dancers stomped, pulsated, and thrashed in rhythmic undulations that led to a fevered, and visually stunning final sacrificial climax.
And suddenly it was finished. The first time I’ve seen The Rite of Spring performed in my life.
The audience clapped loudly, but extremely politely and certainly not riotously—for me that wasn’t enough. I let out a yell with a raised fist that startled, and obviously horrified, the elderly theater patron seated next to me. Then the middle-aged woman in front of me turned to her young daughter and yelled, “Dude, that Stravinsky is dope!”
Somehow, I imagine the composer, who was heartbroken by the overwhelmingly negative response on opening night a hundred years ago, smiling. It took us a hundred years to be ready, but finally, we got it.
Thank you Igor, the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Richmond Ballet for making something I’ve waited 30 years to see exceed even my wildest expectations.