The tiara-and-top-hat contingent in the audience wasn’t ready for a ballet so deliberately distant from graceful arabesques, pointe shoes, and refined violins; what was this ballet about ritual, mystical transport, and pagan sacrifice? They booed, hissed, whistled, laughed, and catcalled, making so much noise they drowned out the orchestra; choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky was forced to call the dancers’ counts to them from the wings. When Diaghilev, the impresario, begged for order, the audience threw fruit. Poet Jean Cocteau was attacked by an infuriated woman wielding her hat pin. The more arty members of the crowd alternately shushed the hecklers and yelled back at them. Fistfights broke out in the aisles.

This, the most celebrated opening night in the history of the theater, was 75 years ago in Paris, when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Critics dubbed this ballet in two acts, set to an orchestral score by Igor Stravinsky, “Le Massacre du Printemps,” and damned music and dance alike.

Primitivism was an acceptable aesthetic in the hands of visual artists like Gauguin and Picasso, but evidently not in the hands of dancers. That Stravinsky based his Rite of Spring on ancient Slavic chants, on fertility rituals, the idea of self-sacrifice, and the place of ritual in culture, mattered not at all. Most audiences and critics of 1913 were simply unwilling to accept the score’s dissonance, multiple rhythms, and eerie beauty as music. When they watched the movement, they saw hunched shoulders, pigeon-toed feet, angular elbows, and dancers running in pointless circles; no strange, powerful, and alien beauty.

Le Sacre du Printemps was performed only eight times; Diaghilev claimed the reason was its controversy. But the dancers not only hated dancing it, they disliked the choreographer: as a very young star, Nijinsky had allied himself with the impresario (Diaghilev) instead of with them. When Nijinsky married a dancer that same year, Diaghilev–jilted, infuriated–dismissed him. Another Ballets Russes choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, disliked sharing the spotlight with Nijinsky anyway, and Fokine attracted wealthy patrons. Nijinsky’s Sacre simply slipped out of repertory.

Out of repertory, but certainly not out of mind. In 1920, Diaghilev commissioned a new, less controversial Sacre from Leonide Massine. It used the same Stravinsky score, the same Roerich costumes and decor, and premiered in the same Paris theater. A number of ballet and modern dance choreographers have used the Stravinsky score since, among them Pina Bausch, Maurice Bejart, Martha Graham, Lester Horton, Kenneth Macmillan, Hans van Manen, John Neumeier, Paul Taylor, Glen Tetley, and Mary Wigman. The most familiar and best-loved version is Walt Disney’s: the dinosaur ballet in Fantasia.

Every remnant of Nijinsky’s Sacre has been treated like a sacred relic. Roerich’s original costumes are now enshrined (but not on view) at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Sotheby’s auction of Nijinsky’s diary made headlines in Variety. Nijinsky’s other manuscripts are among the British Museum’s most prized possessions. Until last fall, relics were all we had.

On September 30, 1987, the Joffrey Ballet premiered Millicent Hodson’s astonishing reconstruction of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Hodson had spent 16 years in basic detective work–poring over the original reviews and interviews; reading participants’ letters, diaries, and memoirs; examining countless photos, drawings, and caricatures; and interviewing surviving dancers, musicians, and spectators. She also painstakingly dissected two notated rehearsal scores–one Stravinsky’s own, the other used by Nijinsky’s assistant and dancer Marie Rambert–and collaborated with Roerich scholar Kenneth Archer in a rigorous anthropological analysis of all the artifacts remaining from those few performances in 1913. Dance and music scholars and historians are grudgingly satisfied with Archer and Hodson’s methodology, and thrilled with the resulting production; even the critics are ecstatic. On Tuesday, March 22, Le Sacre du Printemps receives its Chicago premiere. A riot seems unlikely, but it’s sure to be exciting.

Le Sacre du Printemps will be performed March 22 and 26 as part of the Joffrey’s appearance, March 22-27, at the Civic Center for Performing Arts, 20 N. Wacker. Call 902-1500 for tickets and more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Herbert Migdoll.