I can remember the first time I heard a piece of music by Igor Stravinsky. I was eight years old and had asked my grandfather if he could send me a tape of “ballet music.” It was at the height of my infatuation with dance, but the only ballets I had heard or seen were the likes of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. I was hungry to learn more about ballet and classical music, and I knew my grandfather had a collection of classical music that no Tower Records could rival (this was the beginning of the 1990’s, remember.)
As requested, Gramps filled two sides of a SLP tape with an incredible mix of classical music that included works from Prokoviev, Bernstein, Copland and Stravinsky. I listened to his musical concoction through my walkman and headphones and my life was forever changed.
It was a few selections from the Firebird and Apollo that started my obsession. I truly had no idea that music could be so transcendentally good! Listening to those works, I suddenly became aware that ballet was even more fascinating, complex and wonderful than I had originally thought. I didn’t need to see the ballets to know they were intricate and beautiful, I could see that in the music. I immediately began choreographing as the complicated rhythms and syncopation sent my imagination ablaze. Being exposed to Stravinsky’s ballets made me realize that there was a whole world of ballet to discover. Ballets weren’t just about princesses and swans – there were plenty of ballets that were avant-garde, scary and confusing…I was hooked.
I soon learned about the relationship between George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky. A paring of genius artists who complemented each other perfectly! Balanchine’s quick movements and off-centered inclinations played off Stravinsky’s time signatures in a way that remains thrilling to watch and perform today. According to Stravinsky scholar Charles M. Joseph, “Balanchine was quick to praise Stravinsky as ‘the architect of time,’ yet he himself was no less aware of the structural principles needed to unite music and dance.” [Joseph, “Marathon Men: Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine”]
Indeed to be able to see the collaboration between them must have been amazing. Looking into the way they created – sometimes together and sometimes apart – I think one can easily see how great dance is dictated by the music, and in a way, music is only great when it has the power to evoke feeling and movement. The two elements need each other and they found each other in Stravinsky and Balanchine.
Igor Stravinsky’s music challenged choreography in a way no other composer had. His use of uneven time signatures and unusual, minor melodies were revolutionary, and even upsetting. Recollecting the way I felt the first time I listened to The Rite of Spring, I can understand why the first performance caused a riot (a classical music scandal that further perpetuates Stravinsky’s appeal for me!). The jarring drums, unusual phrasing and minor chords do make the listener feel uneasy. And coupled with Nijinsky’s modern choreography, I can see why the Victorian crowd of 1913 took offense to the ballet which is intended to represent a pagan Russia unified by the mystery and creative surge that comes with the spring season.
As the spring of 2013 is about to begin, the Los Angeles Music Center is set to kick off a year long celebration of Stravinsky’s works with the Joffery Ballet performing the quintessential Rite of Spring next week. With costumes, sets and choreography recreated to imitate Nijinsky’s original performance, the engagement is sure to spark some excitement amongst the LA dance scene. I for one, cannot wait to see this historic work recreated on the LA stage. Stravinsky was, for a time, a resident of West Hollywood, and he embraced the culture of artists, writers and performers who resided here. I feel it’s only fitting that our city pay tribute to his incredible collection of works!
Additionally, the Music Center is holding a Rite of Spring Symposium the afternoon February 2nd, with Russian and dance experts, including Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, who originally reconstructed the work for the Joffrey. They will also showcase an ongoing art exhibition celebrating Stravinsky’s creative influence on dance-makers in Los Angeles. Both events are free to the public.
The spring season is compelling. We are conditioned to take chances and reexamine our way of thinking as snow melts and bits of green push through the soften earth. But what better way to start the year off than taking time to appreciate the works that paved the way for contemporary music and ballet? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Here’s to a season of Stravinsky!