In class, we’ve come across the formative beginnings of ballet already: court dances at Versailles, the palace of the kings of France. Out of this participatory dancing developed the theatrical, presentational dancing style called ballet, which emerged over the 17th and 18th centuries as the popularity of dancing in court bled over into other genres of music. Operas in the 17th and 18th centuries always included a few dance numbers — people liked to see dancing! — and these performances of dancers on stage eventually inspired their own independent productions.
The balletic tradition
The “classical” style of ballet coalesced in the 19th century in France and Russia. It features both intense emotional stories (much like other 19th century music!) and a high degree of elegance in terms of the costumes, set design, and movements of the ballerinas (dancers). [The word “classical” here has nothing to do with the Classical period in music history; it refers to what is now considered the apex of the style and is taught in most modern studios as the fundamentals of ballet.] Ballet is both stylized and quite technical; a difficult and defining feature of high-art ballet dancing is complete control of body alignment: ballet dancers are constantly thinking about the lines that their bodies make, from toes to hips to fingers. Female ballerinas, once they’ve achieved a certain degree of competency in their training, learn a technique called dancing en pointe, going completely up on the tips (points) of their toes:
The effect is the illusion of floating across the stage, weightless and seemingly effortless. (The reality is actually quite painful, and dancers’ bodies are only at their peak until their mid- or late-30s, making their careers quite short.)
A composer whose style and career strongly aligned with classical ballet is the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93). He wrote much other music, including chamber music, opera, piano works, concertos and symphonies, but these works often sound like Romantic ballets: sweeping melodies, clear rhythmic accompaniments, and melodramatic emotions. Tchaikovsky was quite successful as a ballet composer, because, like Mozart and Haydn before him, Tchaikovsky was intent on pleasing his listeners. His music features beautiful and lyrical melodies, clear (but long!) phrases, rich sonorities and colorful orchestration, and sweeping emotional buildup. Most ballet companies in the US today earn their yearly revenue every November and December by staging his ballet The Nutcracker (1892). His other ballets, including Swan Lake (1876) and Sleeping Beauty (1890) are staples of the classical ballet repertoire and a good introduction to the ideals of classical ballet dancing: graceful gestures (pointed toes, curved arms and fingers), feet turned out, bodies that seem to float or fly across the stage (dancing en pointe, leaps, lifts), light colors, romantic pairs of male and female dancers, celebration of dancers’ physiques (tight-fitting clothes, slender bodies, flexing muscles), and traditional depictions of beauty.
When ballets are staged, there are several people involved in the process:
- Librettist – person who outlines the story or plot that the piece will convey
- Choreographer — invents the plan of the dancers’ body motions (called choreography)
- Composer — the person who writes the music
- Set designer — designs the scenery, props, and sets that are the backdrop
- Costumer — people who design and sew costumes
- Conductor — person who leads the orchestra and coordinates musical decisions with the action on stage
As with other genres of theater, including plays and musicals, there are several backstage or offstage jobs required to present ballet: house managers, assistant directors, producers, impresarios (who find or provide funding), marketing, make-up artists, and understudies.
Into the 20th century
Just as with music, poetry, literature, and painting, ballet in the early 20th century explored marked departures from previous traditions and standards. Experimentation was a common feature across all these artistic disciplines — artists often thought of their role in society as being the ones to shock, titillate, or liberate their audiences from the mundane, the ordinary, or the tame — and this brings us to a ballet from 1913, The Rite of Spring.
This work depicts a pagan fertility ritual in an imaginary primitive society (the central young female character is a virgin who sacrifices herself by dancing herself to death) and was created by a powerhouse line-up of leading artists working in Paris:
- Composer: Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) — His other ballets produced with this group of artists include The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Pulcinella (1920), but he was a prolific composer who adopted many different styles across his long career.
- Set designer: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
- Choreographer: Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) — He also choreographed Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in 1912 and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe (1912).
- Impresario of the ballet company, the Ballets Russes: Sergei Diaghilev — He is responsible for the existence of many seminal, influential musical works of the early 20th century, which he commissioned (i.e., paid the composers to write) for his ballet company from Claude Debussy, Manuel de Falla, Francis Poulenc, Sergei Prokofiev, Ottorino Respighi, Erik Satie, Richard Strauss, and Igor Stravinsky.
There are many things about the music and the dancing in this work that are “wrong” right from the outset: the eerie opening bassoon solo (that doesn’t sound like a bassoon at all), avoiding beautiful melodies, intense and aggressive rhythmic accents (e.g., around 3’00 in the first video), almost constant use of dissonant harmonies, dancers’ feet turned inwards, gruesome makeup, costumes that hid the dancers’ bodies, grotesque or contorted body positions, and the storyline is neither moralistic nor uplifting. The following video is a 1987 production by the Chicago-based company Joffrey Ballet that recreates the 1913 choreography and staging:
The premiere of this work was scandalous (May 29, 1913 in Paris) — audience members started to hiss and boo during the first notes, already displeased at the ugliness and un-balletic quality of the music, hecklers threw objects into the orchestra pit to disrupt the players, and a large fist-fight broke out between people who hated the ballet and those who appreciated it. Those who hated it felt their beloved balletic tradition was being mocked, parodied, and distorted; they found nothing in it to be beautiful, graceful, or harmonious. Those who loved it were drawn to its freshness, its newness, and its overt break with the stifling or hampering traditions of the past. In short, the work became a litmus test for where people fell on the spectrum between tradition and modernism.
During the collaborative process, Stravinsky and Nijinsky both emphasized the necessity of novelty in their work. Stravinsky complained about audiences who wanted to hear music from him that sounded like his previously successful works, writing in a letter to a friend, “I cannot…compose what they want from me, which would be to repeat myself.” Nijinsky expressed similar concerns — and delight about the shock value of their work — in a letter to Stravinsky in January of 1913 after rehearsals for the premiere had begun:
Now I know what Le sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring] will be when everything is as we both want it: new, beautiful, and utterly different — but for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience. (January 25, 1913)
Stravinsky, for his part, knew the immediate reaction to his work would not be favorable, saying that “we must wait a long time before the public grows accustomed to our language. Of the value of what we have already accomplished I am convinced, and this gives me the strength for further work.” Following the premiere, one music critic in attendance, Louis Laloy, similarly remarked that “The composer has written a score that we shall not be ready for until 1940.” The dancer Marie Rambert thought the work was “fifty years ahead of its time.”
Underlying the intentions of the creators of this work was also their perceived role in broader social history. Diaghilev and Stravinsky were both Russian, having moved west for more professional opportunities, but their progressive and un-traditional style of art was partly fueled by their participation in the contemporary political climate. In 1916, Diaghilev proclaimed in an interview with the New York Times that
We were all revolutionists…when we were fighting for the cause of Russian art, and…it was only by a small chance that I escaped becoming a revolutionist with other things than color or music.
In his 1989 book Rites of Spring, the historian Modris Eksteins argues that this ballet contains several themes that are sympathetic to or a product of empathy with a revolutionary political position:
The ballet contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous in flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the revolution against social convention (Eksteins, Rites of Spring, 52).
Apart from the entertaining tale of its premiere (fist fights over ballet and classical music, really??!) and its relevant social context (participating in revolution and the clash of traditionalism and modernism), The Rite of Spring is also a remarkable work musically. Not only is it unlike any of his other works — never repeating himself — but it’s also unlike any other work by any other composer, in terms of the way the instruments are used, the use of rhythm and accent, and the structure (form) of the work.
Along with the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Claude Debussy, Stravinsky’s music forges another path for 20th century composers. College- and graduate-level music courses that focus on the music of this century typically begin with this triumvirate or Richard Wagner — there he is, again — and then jump to this trio. In many ways, Stravinsky’s work still feels ahead of its time; his style or techniques haven’t been absorbed into the kinds of musical situations where the average listener typically hears simplified versions of classical music (e.g., movie scores, pop or rock music, musicals, or advertising) in the way that other earlier composers or even Debussy have been. Even for classical music composers, Stravinsky’s music still seems fresh and cutting edge. Alex Ross, a prolific modern music critic (see also here), notes that “Even the youngest composers coming to the fore today listen to The Rite and think, ‘my God.’ It still sounds new to them.”
Some questions to get the conversation going:
- What would happen if Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Diaghilev continued to create ballet productions that sounded and looked just like those of Tchaikovsky?
- What kinds of artistic production today could elicit reactions from audiences as strong as those that The Rite of Spring did?
- What does it mean for an audience or the public to be “ready” for a piece of music or an artistic idea? Should artists only create works that the public is ready for, or is the artist’s role partly to push the public forward (or at least in a new direction)?