Australia’s Visit from Pagan Savages

Controversial Musical Work Gets An Update

Australia's Visit From Pagan Savages

The Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris: newly built in 1913 with its stately facade featuring artisan-crafted sculpting along the roofline and its grand art-deco rotunda. Paris’s upper-crust is finely dressed in black-tie to hear the latest ballet from the Russian, Igor Stravinsky. You know him, he wrote that cute little spring-time ballet Les Sylphides. Before long, the bizarre costumes featuring face-paint, leather-pelt shifts, and headbands, the weird, angular choreography that seems to jostle the ordinarily elegant dancers about the stage, and the harsh, dissonant music that seems to have no timing or too much timing and is too high and shrill or too low and guttural signify that this is no cute ballet welcoming the spring-time. The crowd begins booing, hissing, and arguing with each other and at the young Théatre’s staff. It’s not long before the premiére turns from a chic evening out about town to a savage, evening-wear brawl.

This scene is not an imaginative recreation; it was the reception of one of the singular most influential musical works of the twentieth century. While the sheer savagery was unexpected by Stravinsky himself as well as his choreographic cohort, Diaghilev, it was, to our modern and disconnected understanding, appropriate on some level, given the subject matter of the ballet. The “rite” in The Rite of Spring is a human sacrifice. The story centers itself on some non-descript prehistoric pagan tribe and drags the audience, kicking and screaming in this instance, through its ritual of appeasement. An innocent girl is chosen by the tribal elders, abducted, glorified, and ultimately forced to sacrifice herself to the gods by dancing herself to death. Clearly, the audience that was expecting to see something like a lovely piece about the sylphs was offered a rude awakening instead.

Since its initial reception (or rejection, rather), The Rite of Spring has become one of the single most impactful musical works in the canon and has remained one of the most oft-performed ballets (many performances still using the original Diaghilev choreography). Today, a century since its first performance, the stirring pagan drama still inspires and disturbs arts patrons and creatives alike. The marvelous team at Fabulous Beast has taken up the torch and is presenting their dance theater interpretation at the Brisbane Festival September 25-29. The interpretation, the brain-child of Michael Keegan-Dolan, involves such images as animal heads being issued to be worn by humans, predatory sexuality, gender bending, and wise cigarette-smoking all culminating in a provocative look at modern savagery and social pressure. If any questions should be asked of Stravinsky’s most famous work, these seem to be the ones.

By: Gabriel Rodenborn

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