Lexington Ballet opens its Tribute to Ballets Russes this weekend by commemorating a ballet so avant-garde that it incited a riot.
One hundred years ago, the debut of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's ballet and orchestral work The Rite of Spring — which depicts a pagan girl who is picked for a sacrificial ritual and dances herself to death — ended with a police presence and the composer fleeing the scene. The standing-room-only crowd at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris included artistic luminaries Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Claude Debussy. A few bars into the high bassoon solo that opens the performance, a faction of the crowd began shouting, jeering and throwing vegetables.
Even some of the critics threw metaphorical vegetables in their reviews. Henri Cotillard called the ballet "a laborious and puerile barbarity," and fellow composer Giacomo Puccini dubbed it "the work of a madman, ... sheer cacophony."
History has proved the rioters and the critics wrong. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring became one of the most lauded and influential works of the 20th century and is widely regarded as a turning point in the history of ballet, much the way Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 signaled a pivot in symphonic composition.
Lexington Ballet's artistic director, Luis Dominguez, says the ballet, one of three pieces to be performed Saturday, is just as powerful a century after its riotous debut.
"Even 100 years later, it is still relevant, still strong, still revolutionary," says Dominguez, who choreographed the Stravinsky segment of the concert, to be performed with live accompaniment by the Lexington-based chamber ensemble EnVaGe, or Ensemble of Varying Geometry.
"It was difficult to choreograph because it is so serious," Dominguez says of The Rite of Spring. "You cannot listen to this music without a powerful emotional response."
The Paris debut was choreographed by Vasley Nijinsky, who went on to dance for the Paris-based Ballets Russes, one of the most influential ballet organizations of the 20th century.
In addition to commemorating the centennial of The Rite of Spring, Tribute to Ballets Russes features segments of two other signature pieces.
Dominguez preserved Ballets Russes' original choreography by Michel Fokine for Les Sylphides, a non-narrative ballet set to the music of Chopin that features a poet and white-clad mythological air spirits called sylphs dancing in the moonlight.
"I insisted we keep the original choreography for this piece," says Dominguez, describing Fokine's importance as a choreographer who, among other things, freed ballet dancers of their pointe shoes in some pieces.
Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy rounds out the evening of historically commemorative ballets, but with an interpretive twist. In Dominguez's vision, the struggles of a group of homeless men and women are interrupted by one man's captivation with a beautiful woman. He dreams he is transformed into a faun, and the two dance together until the woman disappears.
Dominguez hopes that paying homage to the companies, dancers, composers and choreographers who helped to shape ballet into the 21st-century art form will captivate and inform audiences about ballet's history.
"To be able to do that is an honor," he says.
IF YOU GO
Lexington Ballet: 'Tribute to Ballets Russes'
What: Dance group's performance of three signature pieces of the early 20th-century Paris-based troupe: The Rite of Spring, Les Sylphides and Afternoon of a Faun.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: $30.75 general admission, $20.75 students. Available at (859) 233-3535, Lexingtonoperahouse.com or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or Ticketmaster.com.
Learn more: Lexingtonballet.org.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.