Dangerous Dancing and Riotous Music

Why was this man’s dancing so dangerous, the music he danced to so shocking?

Niijinsky giselle

The Rite of Spring, ( Le Sacre du Printemps) caused a riot when it was first performed in Paris in1913. The ballet was produced by Serge Diaghilev, founder of the famous Ballets Russe, with music by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, choreography and dancing by the brilliant Vaslav Nijinsky (photo above), and set design and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. The trouble started even before the dancing, when several in the audience started booing  from the first opening notes, played by a bassoon. The new rhythmic and tonal music, the imaginative scenes of “pagan” Russia, and the evocative, sometimes violent dancing—including a young maiden who dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods—were considered shocking to some, though exciting, brilliantly creative and innovative to others. As some in the audience booed and shouted during the performance, others as loudly and energetically defended the performance, resulting in fist fights and eventually a riot that required police intervention. Today, the Rite of Spring is considered a true masterpiece and its first performance a major historical cultural event. Stravinsky’s music is now considered  essential to 20th century composition, Nijinsky’s dancing is acknowledged as daring and brilliant, and the set is considered a significant example of modern art in theatrical design. Here is an excellent overview of the music, the artists, and the first production by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Fransisco Orchestra.

In 1987, the Joffrey Ballet performed a full restoration of the work to critical acclaim. You this clip of the performance and see an excellent example of how this work might have looked and sounded in 1913:


The New York Public Library has an on-line exhibit of Nijinsky’s life and work. You can also listen to an NPR discussion of the importance of the Rite of Spring.

Some questions to consider:

Why was this work considered so shocking? And why would the emotions of the audience run to such intensity that they would actually fight with each other?

Can you think of another work of art that produced such strong reactions that fighting occurred?

In what way does this further our understanding of “dangerous” art?

How do you understand works of this kind in the context of theories of the beautiful in art?

Could something like this happen today–that is, a work scorned and violently objected to that over time comes to be considered a major and important example of art?