I had a strange experience while watching the film “Coco and Igor”, a film about the love affair between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. It’s a sumptuous, rather arty film, with lots of glorious set dressing and laconic conversations between the two leads. Most interesting for me was the long and impressive opening sequence where Coco Chanel attends the first performance of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” in 1913.
I was fascinated by this as I had read many accounts of this performance which caused a riot, and I used it as a pivotal moment in my novel “The Lark Ascending.” My heroine, Chris Adam, is recently married and studying composition in Paris when she attends the same premier of the ballet. For her and all the principal characters in the novel this is a highly significant event, causing a sea-change in their various relationships. Seeing it on screen was very exciting for me, but extremely odd. I half expected to see my characters in the background of a shot.
This is my account of the Rite of Spring riot. You might want to watch Coco and Igor for comparison. (And if the film-makers are looking for another story from that period, I’d be more than happy for them to have a go at The Lark Ascending)
“It began with a melody for the bassoon, slow, haunting and immediately intriguing which touched something deep and restless in her. She felt her insides tense with excitement, and at almost the same moment heard above the orchestra a whistling and hissing from parts of the audience that seemed to grow with the music as if determined to keep up with it.
“Can’t people just listen?” Guy muttered. She nodded in agreement and, as if acting on their cue, a man in one of the other boxes jumped up and shouted, in French: “Listen first – you can whistle later!” This brought silence for a while, and the curtain rose on dancers wearing bold coloured Russian peasant costumes, who moved not like conventional dancers at all, but like badly managed puppets in jerks and jumps in time to the music, which in its turn changed its rhythms so often that it seemed to Chris that there must be a new time signature every two or three bars. The audience went mad at the sight of it, as if something quite obscene were being enacted on the stage.
“How horrible!” exclaimed Miranda.
“Give it a chance, for goodness sake,” said Guy, angrily.
“Guy,” she said, clearly shocked. “I really don’t think you should speak to me like that.”
“And you shouldn’t speak at all,” he retorted. “We’re trying to listen.”
“What’s the point?” she said. “This is idiotic stuff, an insult. Isn’t it?” she appealed to Chris.
Chris shook her head vehemently. She did not want to get involved in an argument about it. She only wanted to listen and watch. For all that the audience were making a terrible racket, the music itself still triumphed, seemingly inextinguishable. They might shout and jeer, but the music and that odd, jerking, frighteningly primitive dancing would go on and on, relentlessly, just like the indestructible forces of the earth. The drums throbbed on in their extraordinary patterns, despite the cat-calling, and the woodwinds shrieked out at the limits of their registers, making a sound so compelling that not all the booing in the world would silence them. She found herself tapping her hand on her thigh, desperately trying to keep up with the beat, as if she too wished to be stamping on the stage, given up to the energy of the thing. The music seemed to possess her, to express all those deep, unmentionable things in her that she had been trying so hard to forget. But now it lay quite open, she felt, the great gaping red wound of her bodily longing. Every phrase, every shriek of that music seemed to call it out.
Then suddenly Miranda was up on her feet and hissing, as if the infection which had swept across the crowd had now caught her.
“Be quiet!” Guy shouted. Chris heard the anger and disappointment in his voice, and at the same moment remembered how he had kissed her, how damp and cold the grass beneath them had been, and yet how he had seemed to lie like fire on her. “Can’t you see this is –”
“It’s utter rubbish, and I want you to take me home!” she exclaimed. “It’s disgusting. Take me home!”
“No, I want to stay,” said Guy.
She stood in front of him and tried to block his view. He pulled her down into her chair and she gave a little scream.
“Take me home at once!”
“I’ll go alone then,” she declared and wrested out of his arms, pushing to the back of the box. She stood there looking petulant, waiting for Guy to relent. “I will.”
“Go on then,” said Guy, and took her seat at the front of the box. As he did so, the music seemed to reach a more frenzied stage. Chris looked back at the stage and then at Angus. He had pulled himself right up to the front of the box and was sitting with his hands grasping at the rail, his eyes absolutely fixed on the stage. There was a bead of sweat on his temple, and his foot was tapping out the rhythm just as she was doing. Back on the stage a girl was dancing around and around, almost as though she were mad, as the music grew louder and more indestructible. The crowd was still screaming, but they were powerless against the diabolic force of that music.
“She’s going to dance herself to death,” she heard him say, as she watched the girl sway and swerve, as if at the limit of her strength, but driven still to dance and dance on. “It’s bloody magnificent!” The crowd grew angrier still, but their anger seemed now to accompany the dance, it had the same frenzy as the music. Despite themselves, the haters were a part of it, a sort of percussion of fear.
Then suddenly, with a giant, clashing, explosive chord, in which the notes fell out like so many pieces of collapsing masonry, it was over. The girl lay prone on the stage. In a moment Chris, Angus and Guy were all on their feet, clapping and cheering as if life itself depended on it.
“For goodness sake, Guy!” shrieked Miranda suddenly from the back of the box. “How dare you! How dare you!”
They all turned. They had quite forgotten her.
“I really didn’t think you could be so selfish,” she went on.
“I didn’t think you could be,” said Guy.
Chris found herself looking at Angus, and saw the cool pain in his eyes. The excitement of the music had gone. They were left with a jeering, abusive crowd and the bitter facts of reality. It was as if the music had thrown a great stone into the glass house in which they all lived, and smashed it utterly. She expected almost to find shards of broken glass at her feet.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Chris.
“Yes, yes, please!” said Miranda, in almost a sob.
Chris saw Guy swallow hard, as if he were swallowing his anger. “All right.”
They left the box and joined the crowd that was storming out of the theatre, belligerent still, despite their expensive clothes.
“An absolute insult!” she heard one woman proclaim. “It should be banned.”
“What do you expect from Russians, my dear?” said her companion.
“God almighty!” muttered Angus, and pushed through the crowd.
They soon lost sight of Guy and Miranda, and Chris almost lost Angus. But she saw him dashing into the street to flag down a fiacre.
“We could walk,” she protested. “A walk would be good.” He held the door resolutely open for her.
“Get in,” he said.
She obeyed and settled herself, waiting for him to join her. Instead, he shut the cab door.
“Angus?” she exclaimed, leaning out of the window. “What on earth?”
“I’m going for a drink,” he said. “You go home and think.”
“Think,” he said.
She was about to let loose a storm of protest but he stood there so stubborn and impassive that she knew it was not worth the effort. “I’ll see you later then.”
“Perhaps,” she thought she heard him say, as the fiacre moved off. She glanced from the window, but saw he had already vanished into the crowd. She sat back in the seat and felt that there were tears starting in her eyes. Damn it, she did not want to cry, but it seemed impossible not too. Angus had gone. He was making her face facts.
And all the time, as she drove back to the rue du Bac, as she stifled her tears, the pounding rhythms of The Rite of Spring beat themselves out in her heart.”