PARIS, SEPT. 20 -- No gendarmes arrived to quell the disturbance. There were no screams, no catcalls, no fistfights, no faintings, no mass exits by outraged patrons. In short, no riot, no scandal, no cataclysm or shock ensued when Igor Stravinsky's epoch-making "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring") returned Wednesday night for the first time since 1913 to the very place where it had provoked the most notorious artistic debacle of the century in its original premiere by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
Instead, this equally historic opening night performance by America's Joffrey Ballet at the Theatre des Champs Elysees for a crowd of French and foreign glitterati was greeted with cheers, rhythmic applause in unison (the French accolade of highest degree), and a dozen vociferous curtain calls. Receiving all this homage were the Joffrey Ballet dancers; their artistic director, Gerald Arpino; conductor Allan Lewis (who led the Orchestre National de France); and the husband-wife team of scholars, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, who engineered the unprecedented reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's original choreography and Nicholas Roerich's original costumes and decor after 16 years of arduous research under the supervision of the late Robert Joffrey.
The "Sacre" performance in Paris was the realization of one of Joffrey's most visionary dreams -- the reconstitution of a watershed masterpiece of 20th-century dance, long thought to be irrecoverable, at the site of its birth. It also marked the Joffrey Ballet's first full appearance in Paris, and thereby as well the restitution to France of one of its historic treasures through the agency of a company of American artists.
None of this could have occurred much sooner. It had to wait, first of all, upon the completion of the Hodson-Archer research among scattered, often obscure sources on five continents, and then the mounting of the Joffrey production, which had its initial performances in Los Angeles three years ago (on the eve of the 1987 earthquake there, which seemed somehow providentially timed). The production was later performed in New York and other American cities including, last year, Washington.
The Paris staging also had to be preceded by a complex and elaborate restoration of the exquisite, 1,900-seat Theatre des Champs Elysees, which began in 1987 and is only now in the final stages of completion. As a model of art nouveau architecture and interior decoration, it proved to be an ideal setting not only for the "Sacre" production, but no less for the other pair of historic Joffrey treasures -- Nijinsky's "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" ("Afternoon of a Faun") and the Massine-Satie-Cocteau-Picasso collaboration, "Parade" -- of Wednesday's all-Diaghilev program. The fact that it was also the scene of the near-legendary uproar of 1913, of course, added immeasurably to the poignancy of the evening's atmosphere.
The Diaghilev troupe presented only five performances of "Sacre" in this hall, followed by a few in London, before the ballet -- which had to wait nearly three-quarters of a century for a thorough appreciation of its revolutionary aesthetics -- was dropped from the repertory. Having succeeded, against formidable odds, in bringing it back to glorious life, the Joffrey troupe too will be performing at the Champs Elysees exactly five times on its current tour.
Though history was, in many senses, repeating itself with Wednesday night's performance of "Sacre," the performance and its ambiance also constituted proof that history can never be replicated exactly. The Hodson-Archer reconstruction, for all its remarkable sense of authenticity and artistic vitality, is admittedly only an educated guess at what the original ballet may have looked and felt like. More significantly -- as the euphoric reception of a contemporary audience indicated -- there was no way of perceiving the event through the eyes and sensibilities of a 1913 perspective. No act of imaginative empathy can have cleared the slate of everything that has happened in the world since, including two world-encompassing wars, the Holocaust, sexual and social revolutions, the advent of the atomic age, space travel, computers, telecommunications and countless artistic uprootings as well.
Yet this new Paris "Sacre" was drenched in its own sense of occasion, as a kind of completing of a circle at century's end. The theater, the performers and the audience all seemed caught up in a thrill of rediscovery, of reconnecting with a past that in itself opened a door to a new kind of future, that indeed was a symbolic launching pad for the age that has dubbed itself Modern.
Each work on the Joffrey program seemed to redefine the timelessness of radical creativity in its own way -- "Parade" with its dry, ironic witticisms and celebration of popular culture, from the circus to magic tricks to the technological furniture of modern consciousness as expressed in typewriters, skyscrapers, movies and airplanes; "Afternoon of a Faun" in its mystical apotheosis of eroticism; and most of all "Sacre," as a modernized primitivism, a ritual of violent rebirth through communal sacrifice.
In 1913, Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Roerich evoked a pre-civilized world and its primal values in order to break with their own predecessors and set the stage for an era of torrential iconoclasms. Paris was never the same. And yet today's Paris -- still the most beautiful of world cities, where tradition and innovation remain on intimate terms -- having revisited that moment of brilliant rupture with American help, finds itself very much the same, once again facing a turning point in history from the vantage point of the past.