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Theatre / The Rite of Spring

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The pagan ritual, as recreated by The Joffrey Ballet. Note the lack of dinosaurs.

—Mnemonic used by orchestras to count the tympani hits at the end of "Mystic Circles."

The Rite of Spring is a groundbreaking ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky and original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. The story is simple enough: A young girl dances herself to death in order to provide a sacrifice for a pagan ritual. However, the work is famous for its sexual content, primitivism, radically anti-ballet dance style, and extremely innovative and dissonant musical score, all of which caused a huge uproar when it premiered in Paris in 1913. In the end, Rite of Spring had a huge influence on the fields of both music and dance, and it is still very highly regarded today.

The work was famously used in Fantasia, which unfortunately has also led many people to incorrectly associate the ballet with dinosaurs. The closing episode, "Sacrificial Dance," was one of 27 songs selected for inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record in 1977.

Sections of the performance:

Times and subtitles taken from Stravinsky's own 1960 recording. Subtitles change based on recording.

Part I — Adoration of the Earth

  1. "Introduction" (2:57)
  2. "The Augurs of Spring — Dances of the Young Girls" (3:03)
  3. "Ritual of Abduction" (1:17)
  4. "Spring Rounds" (3:42)
  5. "Games of Rival Clans" (1:59)
  6. "Procession of the Wise Elder" (0:43)
  7. "The Wise Elder" (0:25)
  8. "Dance of the Earth" (1:14)

Part II — The Sacrifice

  1. "Introduction" (3:41)
  2. "Mystic Circles of the Young Girls" (2:51)
  3. "Glorification of the Chosen One" (1:36)
  4. "The Summoning of the Ancients" (0:42)
  5. "Ritual of the Ancients" (3:19)
  6. "Sacrificial Dance" (4:36)

This work provides examples of:

  • Avant-Garde Music: An early example, pushing the boundaries of harmony, rhythm, and instrumental technique well beyond what was conventional in its day.
  • The Chosen One: The exact title of the maiden to be sacrificed. Since it's a sacrifice to the earth, the one who hits the dirt twice is assumed to be "chosen."
  • Crucified Hero Shot: The Joffrey Ballet reconstruction ends with the dead Chosen One held aloft that way.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The sacrifice is not a quick, merciful death. Instead, the virgin has to dance herself to exhaustion, until she collapses. That could take hours or days even. The Joffrey Ballet makes it clear that it's a frenzied, fast dance that will tire out the virgin faster than a slower one would.
  • Deathly Dies Irae: Appears during the closing "Sacrificial Dance."
  • Doomed Protagonist: We are aware from the start that a young girl will dance herself to death.
  • Downer Ending: The girl dances herself to death.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: The iconic bassoon solo which opens the piece. It's haunting and threatening, placed at the extreme upper register of the instrument.
  • A Fête Worse than Death: Come party at our pagan celebration in honor of springtime! Dancing, music, and Human Sacrifice!
  • Folk Horror: In dance form. The ballet is intended to be set in the distant past and focuses upon a tribe performing a pagan rite to usher in spring, that ends with a young girl being forced to dance herself to death as a sacrifice to the earth. In addition to the disturbing story, the music and choreography are highly unsettling and give off a sense of primal fear and foreboding throughout, even before we get to the sacrifice scene.
  • Got Volunteered: Played for Drama. If you fall out of the line of the dance twice, you're the sacrifice.
  • Hope Spot: The virgin chosen for death has to fall out of the dance twice. Even though the virgin in question falls once, there's still a chance for her to survive. But then she falls a second time, and the other girls quickly nominate her for a sacrifice.
  • Humans Are Bastards: When the virgin falls out of line twice in the Joffrey Ballet, she tries to run for it. The other girls block her way and push her into the middle. Then they dance in the celebration that it wasn't them this year.
  • It Sucks to Be the Chosen One: Because you have to dance yourself to death.
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Mystic Circles of the Young Girls" is a very soft piece at first before the end, where it suddenly increases tenfold in volume and blasts out eleven tympani notes.
    • Similarly, "Ritual Action of the Ancestors," depending on your reading, has a sudden bass clarinet glissando leading into the orchestra hit Jump Scare that begins "Sacrificial Dance."
    • Then there’s the finale of “Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen One)”, in which the very last four notes spell out the word D. E. A. D.
  • Miniscule Rocking: "The Wise Elder" (also named "The Sage" or "A Kiss of the Earth") lasts less than 30 seconds, and on some occasions is simply merged with "Procession of the Wise Elder" or "Dance of the Earth" on tracklists.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: In fact so much that she needs to dance herself to death to make a new spring happen.
  • Nude Nature Dance: The choreography is inspired by pagan nature rituals; nudity is optional but does happen in some performances.
  • Period Piece: The ballet premiered in 1913 and its intended setting is prehistoric Russia, thousands of years in the past.
  • Produce Pelting: The riot at the premiere included some people flinging vegetables at the orchestra. (This led to the conspiracy theory that at least some concertgoers had come already prepared to make a disturbance.)
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Subverted; in the Joffrey Ballet, the virgin tries to run after she falls twice. The other girls won't let her.
  • Shameful Strip: Not uncommon in versions that feature the Nude Nature Dance. A particularly harrowing one in the Ballet Preljocaj version, in which the other dancers around on the virgin, hold her down and brutally strip her, and after a brief Heroic BSoD she embarks on the furious final dance of death.
  • Shout-Out: The work makes use of Russian folk melodies in some of its most famous parts.
  • Sensory Abuse: The reason people supposedly rioted was that it was so grating on the ears and eyes in comparison to normal ballet.
  • Serious Business: The first performance was so radically unconventional that it supposedly caused a riot in the theatre. It didn't, of course, but the crowd was extremely hostile.
  • Siamese Twin Songs:
    • Part I has "Game of Rival Clans" and "Procession of the Sage," which are linked together by a bass drum rhythm and have a very unclear transition between the two.
    • Part II's "Introduction" and "Mystic Circles" do not have a clear transition between them and even use the same themes, so they can be seen as two parts of the same songs.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: "The Sacrifice" is morose and suspenseful, with the virgin being chosen. As she stares in Heroic BSoD, the other girls dance in a celebration that it wasn't them.
  • Stealth Pun: At the end of the sacrificial dance when the virgin dies, the last four notes spell out "D-E-A-D".
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: In the Nijinsky version, the Chosen One spends some minutes staring numbly out at the audience after she is selected for the rite.
  • Tough Room: Infamously, the abovementioned riot spoiled the premiere. Accounts vary on exactly how out-of-hand things really became, but there's no doubt many first-time listeners were perplexed or upset.
  • Uncommon Time: Stravinsky's score does this a lot. For example, "The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One" changes, in consecutive measures, from 9/8 to 5/8 to 7/8 to 3/8 to 4/8 to 7/4 to 3/4. "Sacrificial Dance" takes this even further, changing between time signatures in the 16th note range, almost at random!
  • Virgin in a White Dress: Some performances will have the virgin girls dress in white (such as the Joffrey Ballet and Pina Bausch versions), emphasizing their innocence.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: The most famous classical piece to explore this theme.

Alternative Title(s): Rite Of Spring