Thank goodness neither the French nor Nijinsky had the last word on “The Rite of Spring.”
“Shut up!” shouted the audience at the 1913 premiere in Paris of Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s ballet, performed by the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky, who was sitting near the orchestra, stormed backstage.
“I have never again been that angry,” he wrote.
He watched the rest of the performance from the wings, steadying Nijinsky as he stood on a chair shouting counts to his dancers over the uproar. The dancers, stamping their way through Nijinsky’s imagined ritual of human sacrifice, “knew what they were doing, at least,” Stravinsky noted, “even though what they were doing often had nothing to do with the music.” Za-zing!
Twenty-five years later, another man heard the music and knew exactly what to do with it. “This is marvelous!” Walt Disney exclaimed in a meeting room at Disney Studio in 1938. “It would be perfect for prehistoric animals.”
So it was. Where Parisian art habitues and even the great Russian dancer Nijinsky were wrong about Stravinsky’s avant-garde composition (Nijinsky’s choreography was soon scrapped), the man who gave us Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck was absolutely right about it. Disney’s dinosaurs finally did the music justice — and still do.
“Fantasia,” the experimental film Disney unveiled in 1940, two years after hearing “The Rite of Spring,” is the greatest movement interpretation of the Stravinsky score I know. Its swooping roller-coaster ride through outer space still thrills me, as it did when I was a child (and is all the more amazing because those glorious views came years before space travel). The grace of its long-necked herbivores still moves me, the violent clash of predators terrifies, and when earthquakes and tidal waves finally tear across the cartoon earth, Stravinsky’s bellowing brass sounds like the roar of destiny.
Most important, each scene has everything to do with the music.
Disney was, in effect, a choreographer as much as a cartoonist. A few years earlier, he’d written about “how rhythmic the body really is — and how well balanced.” He added, “That, in itself, is music. In other words, it could be music in the body.”
He understood the power of music. Just a dozen years before “Fantasia,” Disney had introduced a whistling, musical mouse to the world in “Steamboat Willie,” his first film with synchronized sound. The cartoon was musical theater, with a mouse for a maestro. But here is the terrific thing about Disney: He believed he could sell audiences on quality. This is what sparked “Fantasia.”
“We simply figured that if ordinary folks like ourselves could find entertainment in these visualizations of so-called classical music,” Disney said of “Fantasia,” “so would the average audience.”
So into the picture went Bach (Toccata and Fugue in D minor), Beethoven (Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral”), Schubert (“Ave Maria”), Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker Suite,” four years before the first American production of the ballet) and Mussorgsky (“Night on Bald Mountain”). And smack in the heart of the film is Stravinsky’s wild, primitive and unprecedented composition — with its high shrieks and an avalanche of brass, its reassembled folk tunes and chaotic rhythms, all of which cracked open convention so Modernism could push through.
Leopold Stokowski, “Fantasia’s” conductor, advised cutting “The Rite of Spring” to less than 20 minutes, but Disney used 30, nearly the full length. He rearranged some of the movements, as is common with choreographers.
What kind of mind thought this confrontational, controversial piece that had divided the music world would work in a mainstream children’s movie? It’s not for nothing that Stokowski compared Disney with Diaghilev, the famed director of the Ballets Russes. Both were ambitious, with a roving curiosity; both brought about new forms of art through the merging of all of them — music, dance, painting, theater. Stravinsky was the improbable link between them.
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.”