The Rite of Spring reconstructed

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This week sees the centenary of the first performance by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Everyone is familiar with the details of that momentous occasion, and Stravinsky’s score is probably performed more frequently today than any of his other works. Less familiar is the nature of the ballet which caused so much outrage. A combination of the hectic schedule of the Ballets Russes and the loss of choreographer Nijinsky a few months later meant that the choreography was never properly transcribed. This caused problems for subsequent revivals, and the only reason we have an idea of the radical nature of the ballet is thanks to a decade of research by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, a pair of cultural archaeologists who’ve specialised in reviving ballets. Hodson and Archer scoured archives looking for details of Nicholas Roerich’s costumes, and also traced surviving members of the 1913 company in order to verify their choreographic researches.

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The performance here is a recording of the Joffrey Ballet’s staging of Hodson and Archer’s reconstruction from the late 1980s. I first saw this in 1989 and was aghast at how strange and savage the dancing is compared to classical ballet. Hodson and Archer have since amended some of the performance details but there’s more than enough in this staging to convey why the ballet was so threatening and disturbing to the audience in 1913. Even today, after decades of modern dance it looks surprisingly crude with its dancers stamping their way across the stage. I was also thrilled to see the restoration of Nicholas Roerich’s costumes and decor. In addition to giving the ballet its distinctive look, Roerich contributed the pagan dramaturgy, something that tends to be overlooked when so many big names are competing for attention. (There’s more about Roerich and his involvement with the Rite here.) I always enjoy the way Roerich provides a link between this favourite ballet and the writings of HP Lovecraft. I’ve no idea what Lovecraft would have made of The Rite of Spring but he had a lot of time for Roerich’s paintings, and refers to them in At the Mountains of Madness.

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The recording linked here is annoyingly split into three parts (and the soundtrack is hissy mono) but if you’ve any interest in the original ballet it really needs to be seen.

The Rite of Spring: part one | part two | part three

Previously on { feuilleton }
Vaslav Nijinsky by Paul Iribe
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky

Brothers Quay scarcities

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Igor: The Paris Years (1982).

More animation, and scarce in the sense that some of these films were omitted from the core Quay Brothers canon released in the UK by the BFI as Quay Brothers: The Short Films 1979-2003. Quay obsessives such as myself would have been happy to pay for an extra disc featuring more of their oeuvre but we can at least turn to YouTube to fill in some gaps. This is by no means everything so I may add more discoveries at a later date. Some of the DVD-issued films can be seen on the BFI’s official Daily Motion channel.

I was eager to see the Stravinsky film again having watched it one time only in a Channel 4 screening some 25 years ago. After a fresh viewing it’s not as impressive as I remembered, in part because the Quay’s distinctive approach to animation—and filmmaking generally—developed a great deal following the unforgettable Street of Crocodiles (1986). Igor: The Paris Years concerns the composer’s relationship with Jean Cocteau and Vladimir Mayakovsky, all of whom are animated as cut-out figures in a Modernist cityscape with The Rite of Spring playing on a piano.

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Leos Janácek: Intimate Excursions (1983). Part 2 is here.

In a similar vein, but more successful, is this portrait of Czech composer Leos Janácek. This uses the same cut-out character style but places the composer in Eastern European settings similar (down to the floating tram pantographs) to those seen in the very first Quay film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979). Among the other puppet characters there’s one figure singing an aria who later appears as Enkidu in This Unnameable Little Broom (1985).

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Old Piano (1988).

A very short (and poor quality) ident for MTV.

Continue reading “Brothers Quay scarcities”

Weekend links 101

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Kraken from Ernie Cabat’s Magical World Of Monsters (1992) at Monster Brains.

“I think for a lot of people who don’t read pulp growing up, there’s a real surprise that the particular kind of Pulp Modernism of a certain kind of lush purple prose isn’t necessarily a failure or a mistake, but is part of the fabric of the story and what makes it weird. There’s a big default notion that ‘spare,’ or ‘precise’ prose is somehow better. I keep insisting to them that while such prose is completely legitimate, it’s in no way intrinsically more accurate, more relevant, or better than lush prose.” China Miéville at Weird Fiction Review expressing an opinion that few in the literary world ever articulate, never mind agree with. Far more common is (to pick a recent example) Ursula K Le Guin dismissing Cormac McCarthy for “pretentious prose”.

• “Militant feminist scientists brainwash a research subject to assassinate the Welsh Minister of Prostitution. Meanwhile World War III is being fought and the USA has been invaded.” The IMDB précis for Taking Tiger Mountain (1983), a feature film directed by Tom Huckabee from a script by William Burroughs, and featuring a 19-year-old pre-Aliens/Near Dark Bill Paxton. The director discusses the film’s production at Screen Slate and attends a rare screening at Spectacle, Brooklyn, NYC, today (March 25th). YouTube has a three-minute clip. Surprising this has remained buried for so long. When can the rest of us get to see it?

• Prestel have published the catalogue for In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States. AnOther previewed some of the contents. The exhibition runs at the LACMA, Los Angeles, until 6th May.

…gays only make up about 3% of the population so we spend our whole lives “translating” straight movies, books, ballets into gay terms and studying the heterosexuals around us—we know much more about them than they know about us, just as blacks know a lot about whites but whites know virtually nothing about blacks.

Edmund White (again) interviewed by Frank Pizzoli at Lambda Literary Review.

• New on Caroline True Records: Jon Savage’s “Fame”, Secret History of Post-Punk 1978–81. “Some of it doesn’t sound like anything that has happened since,” says Savage. Indeed. FACT has the track list which I was pleased to see includes Chrome among the usual suspects. Hear a 12-minute promo mix at Soundcloud.

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The Colossi of Memnon by Jules Guerin. From Egypt and its Monuments (1908) by Robert Hichens at Golden Age Comic Book Stories.

Gay Life Stories, “a colourful compendium of same-sex love through the ages” by Robert Aldrich. Reviewed here. Related: Alice Dreger asks “Are straight people born that way?”

• Clive Hicks-Jenkins created a series of designs for a Washington DC performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. Follow their evolution in reverse order at his blog.

• Hocus Pocus: Margaret Eby on the brief epistolary relationship between Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rick Poynor on more cover designs for JG Ballard’s Crash.

London, city of dreams and rivers, caught on Polaroid.

• Photo prints by Thom Ayres for sale at Society6.

B*tches in Bookshops

• Meet You In The Subway (1979) by Chrome | New Age (Version III) (1980) by Chrome | Danger Zone (1981) by Chrome | Firebomb (1982) by Chrome.

Powell’s Bluebeard

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The subject of yesterday’s post, The Tales of Hoffmann, was the closest Michael Powell came to realising his concept of the “composed film”, a work which would combine performance, music, lighting and set design to create something which was unique to cinema. The central ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is another example of this, and Powell & Pressburger had plans to follow Hoffmann with similar works, including something based on The Odyssey which would have had contributions from Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. None of this worked out, unfortunately, Hoffmann was less successful than was hoped and the Archers partnership was eventually reduced to making dull films about the Second World War until P&P went their separate ways. The scandal of Peeping Tom in 1960 finished Powell’s career as a filmmaker in Britain, but he managed to return to the composed film concept in 1963 when production designer Hein Heckroth asked him to direct a production of the Bartók opera Bluebeard’s Castle for German television. Heckroth was responsible for the distinctive character of the later Archers films, including The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann, but was working here with greatly reduced resources. Being a great Bartók enthusiast as well as a Powell aficionado it’s long been a source of frustration for me that this hour-long film is one of the least visible from Powell’s career. To date, the stills shown here are about the only visuals one can find.

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Bluebeard: Norman Foster.

Bluebeard’s Castle was Bartók’s only opera, a tremendous work and a lot easier to digest than some being a one-act piece for two singers: bass (Bluebeard) and soprano (Judith, his wife-to-be). The fairy tale of the murderous husband is turned into a psychodrama with Judith’s successive opening of the castle’s seven doors revealing more than she wants to know about her suitor’s personality. The libretto by Béla Balázs drops the last-minute rescue of the heroine by her brothers for a darker conclusion. The simple storyline and pronounced symbolism—the doors are often given different colours, while the rooms to which they lead each have a symbolic decor and import—lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Needless to say I’d love to see how Heckroth and Powell presented the drama. To whet the appetite further, one of the P&P sites has this account of a recent screening.

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Judith: Ana Raquel Sartre.

There are many other filmed versions of this opera, of course, and YouTube has the usual motley selection chopped into opus-ruining ten-minute segments. The BBC screened a fantastically gloomy version in 1988 by Leslie Megahey, director of many fine TV documentaries including the major Orson Welles edition of Arena in 1982 and a chilling adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter. His Bluebeard has been released on DVD in the US, and YouTube has an extract here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Tale of Giulietta
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Béla Bartók caricatured

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

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Ida Rubinstein as Zobeide and Vaslav Nijinsky as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (1913) by Georges Barbier.

Another great exhibition at the V&A, London, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes gathers a wealth of costumes, stage designs, photographs and ephemera—including some of Stravinsky’s manuscripts—to present a history of the legendary ballet company and their visionary impresario. For those who can’t get to London the museum website shows some of the items which will be on display, and there’s also a blog about the installing of the exhibition. The enormous frontcloth from 1924 based on Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach received a flurry of attention in the press here but my own attention was caught by the picture of Natalia Goncharova‘s even more enormous backcloth for The Firebird. The exhibition runs to January 9, 2011.

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Cover of Le Théatre showing Tamara Karsavina in costume as the Firebird, May 1911.

While we’re on the subject, a new biography of the impresario, Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen, was reviewed last week in the New York Times:

Diaghilev loved beautiful young men, and at a time when the fashion in ballet was to exchange patronage for sex, his company provided a bounty. Scheijen dexterously plays his sources against one another to examine the erotic and professional dynamics between Diaghilev and his stars.

For a fictional (and necessarily heterosexual) account of those erotic and professional dynamics, I recommend Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) which not only has a central character based on Diaghilev but includes among the cast of real dancers Léonide Massine, dancer and principal choreographer of the Ballets Russes from 1915 to 1921.

See also:
Russian Ballet History | An archive and documentary site.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
The art of Ivan Bilibin, 1876–1942
Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009
Magic carpet ride
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky