If this past year has given us absolutely nothing else, it has at least given us time to think. As I’ve dragged myself through day after week after month, I have thought a lot about making art: how, why, when, and especially with whom we choose to do it. Being forcefully isolated from friends, family, collaborators…I guess it has driven me to wonder about this Herculean thing we do—making art—and why creating is at the core of who and what we are. Over and over, as I consider all this, my thoughts return to The Rite of Spring.
In 1913, Igor Stravinsky created Le Sacre du Printemps (also known as The Rite of Spring) as a commission for Sergei Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev’s company was premiering original choreography from the young, already famous Vaslav Nijinsky at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris, and the well-known Stravinsky was told to create something new. The production was meant to demonstrate something ritualistic and primeval, a world from before, utterly unlike the Europe of 1913. It accomplished this, perhaps a little too well. In some accounts, we are told that the combination of choreography and music seemed to literally drive people mad; the performance met with abject hostility or, according to some stories, outright riots right there in the theater (although there are some historians who label these accounts as embellishments). The reaction from many was absolute, less criticism or even derision than utter rejection of either the music, the choreography, or both. While artists from a range of media supported their peers at the premier with reviews that castigated the snobbish incomprehension of wealthy audiences, those audiences were simply not ready for what they encountered. In 1913, the great Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps received seven individual audiences, four in Paris and three in London, before he put the work away, never to be performed in his lifetime again. Simply put, by almost any metric, the debut of Le Sacre du Printemps was a colossal failure.
But, in some ways, all of this feels like ancient history. What does it matter that The Rite of Spring failed, and what does the piece have to do with the act of creating? I think it’s that something that failed so miserably went on to change contemporary dance. Something that failed also succeeded—just not in the way Nijinsky, Stravinsky, or literally anyone else could ever have imagined.
While eventually there were many successful reinterpretations of Le Sacre du Printemps, Pina Bausch’s work still stands as one of the most iconic pieces of contemporary dance. The version she premiered in Germany in 1975 begins with a woman clad in a slip, alone, face down in dirt. While Bausch’s setting is different, the soul of the piece remains insistent, uproarious, impossible to deny. Our senses are immediately, intentionally assaulted as Bausch’s choreography demonstrates in glaring detail the hierarchy at the heart of ritual and the gendered violence that it begets—or, that begets it. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Bausch’s choreography is not the physical use of the elements — the decision to use peat, the accumulation of decayed organic matter that has been known to preserve relics of the ancient past, feels very important here —nor the heterogenous movement of her brilliant dancers, or even her inspiring use of repetition as a storytelling device. What is astonishing is that while Bausch’s choreography is undeniably different from what Nijinsky originally set, the core of the story is still preserved, as bright and alive as fresh blood. Where Nijinsky had apparently failed, Bausch’s piece succeeded fabulously. And yet in both cases, The Rite of Spring — at its core — is an examination of the rituals we undertake to make way for something that is new.
The Rite of Spring is an examination of what we can sacrifice, and what that sacrifice brings. It is violent, gruesome, and (especially in Bausch’s treatment) devastating mirror held up to the gendered hierarchies and constructions that perpetuate and encourage this violence. It highlights what we, as a community, can endure, but also what we allow. But in both Nijinsky’s and Bausch’s versions, even deeper than these themes of ritual and community is the message to create for creation’s sake. There was no guarantee that where Nijinsky had failed that Bausch would succeed. In fact, there was no guarantee that either piece would ever find any success. The Rite of Spring, arduous and loud and elemental, is an object lesson in the necessity of creation and in challenging the spectator. Nijinsky’s work was a critical failure, but it was essential for the art it inspired. Likewise, Bausch’s piece fundamentally transformed contemporary dance, but that was never her goal. In Bausch’s own words, "It is almost unimportant whether a work finds an understanding audience. One has to do it because one believes that it is the right thing to do. We are not only here to please, we cannot help challenging the spectator." Bausch’s creative act contributed to a flourishing of the contemporary dance community that integrated expressionistic acting with physical technique. And importantly, it emphasized a dance community that showcased bodies of different color, weights, ethnicities, and gender identities. It created a bigger dance world, one where more people found a place in which they belonged.
Somehow, remarkably, it is finally 2021. After a year marked with violence, titanic loss, grief, and sacrifice, we have somehow arrived on the cusp of a new Spring. And with that new Spring, I hope, come new rituals. In this time, a time to grow, I can’t help but think that the most profound thing we can do as artists is to create. Even if you feel like your work isn’t important, or that now isn’t the time for leaning into your creative endeavors, and especially if you’re afraid of failing (like me), do it anyway, because we are not only here to please. We are here to make. We never know what our work will bring, or what it will mean 60 years or 100 years from now, or what world we can make that is more inclusive for all. Perhaps that is why it is so important to simply make art, now more than ever.