A progression of important dance moments, arrayed like steppingstones across a stream, led from that famous Paris premiere to California. Stokowski had seen the Ballets Russes perform “The Rite of Spring” in Europe, after Nijinsky’s choreography had been abandoned (it was performed only a handful of times) and replaced in 1920 by Diaghilev’s new favorite choreographer, Leonide Massine. Stokowski fell in love with the music, and conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in the American premiere of the concert version — with no dancing — in 1922. Eight years later, he led that orchestra in the American premiere of the full Massine ballet. A young Martha Graham was the sacrificial victim.
And eight years after that, in 1938, Stokowski was discussing “The Rite of Spring” with the master animator who in its jagged beats and boiling drums saw visions of interstellar space, our fiery newborn planet, single-cell sex, pterodactyls that owned the skies, and finally, a heaving, withering, weary end, as all earthly greatness is baked out of existence.
Today, the ending of “Fantasia’s” “Rite of Spring” section, depicting the extinction of the dinosaurs in heat and drought, feels especially prescient — and chilling. Are we next? Is that final view of a dark, empty planet, mourned by a strange, lonely melody, our future? This “Rite” has no need for a sacrificial victim; she is us.
An ecological cataclysm, portrayed at close range in vivid color, its drama heightened but also gentled and distanced through the cartoon form, is an excellent match for Stravinsky’s wildness and muscle. “This music has never been done justice to,” Stokowski told Disney at the outset of their collaboration. “It’s too powerful.”
Too powerful. This is why so many efforts to dance to “The Rite of Spring” have failed. That musical might overwhelms the bodies and the confines of the stage. Choreographers sink if they respond with melodrama, or exaggerated, acted-out physical and emotional trauma; yet many do. (I’m thinking of Pina Bausch’s despairing version on a stage strewn with dirt; Stephen Page’s “Rites” for the Australian Ballet, derived from aboriginal dance with heavy use of body paint and prowling, and Beijing Modern Dance Company’s “All River Red,” with its visual echoes of every ominous musical note.)
The better approaches use a lighter touch. Molissa Fenley performed topless in her solo opus “State of Darkness,” one of the more memorable dance versions, but half an hour makes for a long solo. Shen Wei’s plotless exploration of rhythm and velocity uses a four-hand piano accompaniment, reducing the music to a human scale. Bill T. Jones doled out the music in fragments in his recent “A Rite,” a talky, unfinished meditation on the notion of sacrifice. Mark Morris Dance Group’s recent “Spring, Spring, Spring,” accompanied by a jazz adaptation of the Stravinsky by the band the Bad Plus, avoids any notion of death.
But if you’re going to grapple with the full-on force of “The Rite of Spring,” it’s difficult to imagine a better treatment than Disney’s, with its bold visualization of what had never before been seen (space, dinosaurs in motion), and its exhilarating sense of movement. A ripple of flutes announces shooting stars and comets; the surging, pounding “Dance of the Adolescents” section of the music introduces us to an adolescent earth, raging and unstable under the sway of volcanos and storms. Waves of lava roll and plunge as the music rolls and plunges. In a patch of sweet and mysterious strings, swimming creatures paddle by; pterodactyls loop overhead on the music’s silvery swoops.
Here’s another reason why “Fantasia’s” “Rite of Spring” works: It’s not the work of dance or music aficionados. It’s an outsider approach.
“These are not the interpretations of trained musicians,” music critic Deems Taylor, the film’s narrator, tells us with a laugh, “which I think is all to the good.”