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In the Mind of Igor, Akram Khan
© J Louis Fernandez

'The Rite of Spring' turns 100

Brace yourselves for bruises, blood, sacrifice and cage fighting – on the centenary of the riotous premiere of ‘The Rite of Spring’, we talk to five artists remaking the legendary dance work

By Lyndsey Winship
One hundred years ago this week, affronted Parisians allegedly rioted in the aisles at the premiere of Nijinsky’s ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’, with its radical choreography and groundbreaking Stravinsky score. Originally performed by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the story of a ‘chosen’ maiden being ritually sacrificed is still a beacon for artists a century on. We asked five choreographers – who have all made their own versions of the ‘Rite’ – about the appeal of this revolutionary work and whether art can still shock today.
In the Mind of Igor
Akram Khan's 'In the Mind of Igor' © J Louis Fernandez

Akram Khan

The only artist of this bunch not to use the original score in his own take on the ‘Rite of Spring’, Khan instead tries to get ‘In the Mind of Igor’ (Stravinsky, that is), taking on themes of sacrifice, ritual, birth and death, and commissioning new music from composers Ben Frost, Jocelyn Pook and Nitin Sawhney.

Why do so many choreographers want to tackle the ‘Rite of Spring’?
‘The music is so powerful. It’s like being led by a wild horse, in the sense that it’s a beast, an untameable piece of music.’

Have you ever seen a piece of art that’s as revolutionary as the ‘Rite’?
‘I’ve been involved in one, Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”. That changed my world completely. That was an entire education in how theatre could be done.’

The Oracle
Paul White in 'The Oracle'. Photo by Regis Lansac

Meryl Tankard

The Australian choreographer – best know for working with Pina Bausch – has made an intense solo, ‘The Oracle’, for excellent Aussie dancer Paul White, based on the story and score of the ‘Rite’.

In 2013, does art still have the power to shock?
‘I think the only way someone could shock us now is with sheer honesty, sincerity, originality. So much is “sold” to us by marketing companies and so much art is merely copied from what others have created before, it’s hard to be shocked.’

Why does the ‘Rite of Spring’ still capture our imaginations?
‘Maybe because the choreographer, Nijinsky, actually sacrificed himself making this work. He gave so much of himself and never recovered from the experience. He spent his last days in an insane asylum.’

Jamie Lewis Hadley
Jamie Lewis Hadley © Tony Perez

Jamie Lewis Hadley

Hadley is an ex-pro wrestler turned live artist – a singular career path, as far as we know. He has taken on the idea of rioting, updating the 1913 kerfuffle at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées by using images from more recent French riots to make a performance-installation on the subject of violence and sacrifice.

What’s the most revolutionary piece of art you’ve seen?
‘Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Knee 5” from “Einstein on the Beach”, a piece of music that completely shifted my understanding of art.’

Can art still be shocking today?
‘As an artist who uses blood, I often get asked about the “shock value” in my work. My work certainly doesn’t come from that place; I want to make it explicit that this incredible substance has the ability to emotionally and physically connect us all. Would my performances shock the audience in my local town hall in Devon? Yes, probably! But I think in London the live art audience has seen almost everything and is shocked by very little.’

Joseph Mercier's 'Rite of Spring'
Joseph Mercier's 'Rite of Spring'

Joseph Mercier

Mercier’s previous works have utilised bondage and butt plugs so a bit of bodily discomfort is nothing to him. His version of the ‘Rite of Spring’ is based on the medium of mixed martial arts (aka cage fighting), where Mercier ‘discovered a whole language of ritual and bodily sacrifice’. First aid kit at the ready!

What’s the most revolutionary piece of art that you’ve seen?
‘When I saw David Hoyle’s performance series “Magazine” at the RVT several years ago I had the feeling I was watching something revolutionary.’

Do you think art still has the power to shock?
‘I hope it does. I hate to think that art has been rendered so benign that it can’t shock or disturb. I think art that shocks “for the sake of shock” can still do something interesting.’

Jamila Johnson-Small in 'The Birthday Party'. Photo by Eleanor Sikorski
Jamila Johnson-Small in 'The Birthday Party'. Photo by Eleanor Sikorski

Jamila Johnson-Small

For her contribution to the ‘Rite’ centenary, choreographer Johnson-Small has made a duet, ‘The Birthday Party’, taking on the chilling theme of the abduction and sacrifice of young girls.

Why is the ‘Rite of Spring’ still so resonant today?
‘I think it is because [the original choreography] is lost. It’s become this legendary piece of work and we will never know what it was exactly or why. The Ballets Russes was epic. It has the romantic appeal of the theatre in its grandest sense. I might make work with my friends in the park and perform in a shopping centre – there’s no glamour there.’


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