By Cheryl Rychkova
Few ballets in the history of dance have created a stir of powerful emotions more than the original production of Le Sacre du printemps (LSDP). In order to inspire such emotions, the creative forces behind it had to be inspired in the same intense manner, minus the memorable public outrage that occurred at the premiere.
It is true indeed that the three primary forces behind the creation of the ballet were men of intense passion – not only for their art – but also for their heritage. All three were proud Slavs, right down to the core of their mystic, moody Russian souls. They had all participated in the development and wild success of Ballet Russes phenomenon, along with the innovative Diaghalev, but it seems that the famous threesome reached a point where they wanted to work on projects with more substance rather than the wild, splashy, colorful spectacles that had brought the Ballet Russes great fame.
Part of their desire to express their inherent Russianness may have come out of a surge of nationalism that occurred on the eve of World War I (LSDP). Another factor to consider has to do with a thread that runs through nearly all of the Russian Studies discipline, which was and is: Russia’s deep-seated (though rarely articulated) ties to a pagan past and – thanks to Peter the Great’s reforms – a contrived connection with Western Europe. Roerich, Stravinsky and Nijinsky clearly felt the time had come for a unique and powerful _expression that was strictly Slavic.
In order to achieve that, it was necessary to return to their ancient (but not so distant) pagan roots.
Stravinsky’s Claim From the earliest accounts, dating from 1912, Stravinsky insisted that LSDP was not only his original idea but that he had created the music first, and the idea came to him afterward.
Since the music was of an abstract nature, Stravinsky stated that the music was a “point of departure…I used the very image evoked by the music. Being a Russian, for me this image took form as the epoch of prehistoric Russia. But bear in mind that the idea came from the music and not the music from the idea” (Hill, 3).
While indeed Stravinsky may have had the first inkling of the balletic/musical possibilities of such an idea, there was another creative genius that had been thinking along the same lines: Nicholas Roerich. Almost the moment the germ of the idea behind LSDP came to Stravinsky, he contacted Roerich for his input. The fact that he made the contact so quickly speaks volumes about Stravinsky’s respect for Roerich’s knowledge of ancient Slavic culture.
Roerich was a fascinating individual and a true Renaissance man of the Slavic persuasion. He was “…a rare blend of scholar with artist and visionary” (Hill, 4). He had an extensive background in archeology, anthropology and art. He was…utterly absorbed in dreams of prehistoric, patriarchal and religious life – of the days when the vast, limitless plains of Russia and the shores of her lakes and rivers were peopled with the forefathers of the present inhabitants.
Roerich’s mystic, spiritual experiences made him strangely susceptible to the charm of the ancient world. He felt in it something primordial and weird, something that is intimately linked with nature…” (Hill, 4-5).
Considering a personality and background such as Roerich possessed, it is quite believable that it was he – and not Stravinsky – who came up with the idea that led to LSDP. This is not to discount Stravinsky’s enormous and powerful contribution to the work, but clearly he was operating from less informed points of cultural reference than was Roerich.
At the time that LSDP was being developed, Roerich also had access to a remarkable collection of Slavic cultural pieces. His patron, Princess Tenisheva of the Talashkino estate, gave him access to her collection of Russian folk art, including traditional national costumes, khlokhloma (Russian folk designs – largely pagan – painted onto wood, which was then varnished), and even ancient carved pagan idols. “In the propitious surroundings of Talashkino work on the Rite prospered and within a few days…the plan of action and titles of the dances had been decided. Roerich began work on the designs, sketching backdrops and seeking inspiration in the Princess’s collection for his costume designs” (Hill, 7).
While the swirls and circles and ladder designs found on the ancient clothing inspired the costumes, the wooden idols were even more influential in the creation of LSDP, particularly once Nijinsky joined the project. The idols must have had a major impact on the choreographer. Surviving photographs taken backstage during preparation for the premiere show stylized, abstracted poses.
As dance researcher Millicent Hodson stated: “The wooden idols are the most probable source of Nijinsky’s postures and gestures” (Hodson, 7).
Even the makeup and costumes used in the ballet were reminiscent of the ancient idols: “…parts of the carved figures are accentuated with red paint, a detail which may have motivated the stylized make-up for the dancers in Sacre” (Hodson, 7).
Another reason to connect Nijinsky with the pagan idols so admired by Roerich is the fact that the two men enjoyed a comfortable friendship based on shared ideas and respect. In fact, Nijinsky’s sister reportedly stated that it was only with Roerich that she ever saw her brother appear relaxed.
An additional source of ideas for choreography may well have been the rhythmic, circular patterns that repeated over and over in Russian pagan designs. “Many of the ground patterns in the original Sacre have antecedents in the ritual dance of shamanistic tradition – circles, concentric circles, squares, and the circle-in-the-square. Surely Roerich passed on to Nijinsky the importance of patterns in the archaic rites of the Slavs” (Hodson, 12).
Since it seems fairly clear that Roerich and Nijinsky worked closely together on the project, it really is not much of a stretch to suppose that the choreographer developed the ground patterns for the ballet from Roerich’s ideas and the ritualistic Slavic tradition.
Certainly the steps that have been “recreated” (based on what documentation is available from the original) indicate movements that are primitive, intentionally ungraceful, which befits the pagan rite represented.
The sense of intensity in emotion and movement, however, is actually quite a contrast to the set designs Roerich created for the LSDP set. His artwork for the ballet is serene, even pastoral. It is possible this contrast is deliberate – a way of showing both the peaceful Russian countryside and the passionate experiences that come out of that same setting. Culturally speaking, this would make sense, as the Russians feel a very powerful pull to their native earth and the cycles it represents.
In one of the surviving letters from Roerich’s correspondence with Diaghalev, the artist (Roerich) states his objectives for LSDP. It is clear from this letter that his goal was “to present a number of scenes of earthly and celestial triumph as understood by the Slavs…My intention is that the first set should transport us to the foot of a sacred hill, in a lush plain where Slavonic tribes are gathered together to celebrate the spring rites…” (Brighton School of Design, 2).
In another letter to Diaghalev, he explains his love for all things Russian: “I have been studying Russian (and Slavic) antiquity for twenty years now, and I find beautiful traits in it, wonderful scenes which the public must be reminded of.
In the whirlwind of contemporary life the public often forgets about the distant life when people knew how to rejoice, when they understood the beautiful cosmogony of the Earth and Sky. In the ballet Sacre du Printemps, conceived by Stravinsky and myself, I wanted to present scenes of the joy of Earth and the exultation of Sky in a Slavic context.” (Denner, 1)
As stated earlier, Stravinsky’s considerable contribution to LSDP cannot be over-stated. His score matches the intensity of the choreography and costumes with its barbaric dissonance. Indeed, along with Roerich’s and Nijinsky’s help, he incorporated parts of Russian folksongs into the score, creating not only intensity, but intensity without pretension.
Looking back over the decades since LSDP’s shocking and disastrous premiere, it is sad to realize that their earnest attempt to share their deeply loved heritage would be received in the manner it was. However, 21st century people must always endeavor to put such sad stories into the proper context.
What Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Roerich and Diaghalev created was something that had never been seen before, and the public was shocked to its foundation. The creators realized they were far ahead of their time, and it is a powerful testament to their collective genius and personal bravery that LSDP came into existence at all.
It is interesting also to note that none of the creators of the production perceived their work to be outrageous. Intense, yes, but in a powerfully pure and essential way. While the numerous variations on the original LSDP sometimes wander far from the prototype and the reconstruction of the original work has been criticized, surely those great thinkers and innovators that first visualized LSDP would be pleased their work was eventually found to be so worthy that some have devoted their entire careers to exploring how it all came about, was lost, and then found again by combining other visions of the same theme.