Monday, May 13, 2013

The wrong of spring

The last time I saw Paris, I visited the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées -- which, for reasons I don't get, isn't on the Champs-Élysées. (It's on Avenue Montaigne, down near the Seine.) Nothing about this dignified Art Deco building screams "I am the site of one of the most famous riots in the history of the performing arts." But it is.

The hall was closed when I approached the ticket window and said in broken French, "Is it possible to enter? I have come from the United States and would like to look for a moment." The woman eyed me as if I were a spy who had forgotten the code word for a proper contact.

"Le Sacre?" she asked with a sigh.

"Oui," I said, smiling. "Le Sacre."

She waited a moment, beckoned some kind of security person/custodian over, and he unlocked a door. I peeped in, thanked her and him, then left. The pilgrimage was over. But I'd seen the place where the "The Rite of Spring" debuted in May 1913, during the opening season of the venue.

Reports about that night differ. They mention fisticuffs, obscene catcalls, derisive laughter and  objects thrown at the orchestra, which was trying to keep up with Igor Stravinsky's ever-changing tempo markings. (If you're curious, you can read more at But all agree that Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes became the talk of the dance world and created a discussion about what modern art ought to be.

Le Sacre du Printemps (to use the original title) has long since joined the established repertoire in dance and concert versions. It still has the power to shock, as I realized when excerpts of Pina Bausch's version showed up in the 2011 documentary "Pina." But we've absorbed the music's ever-changing forms into our bones.

So I'm sad that Charlotte's performing groups did nothing to mark the 100th anniversary, as far as I know. Nobody played it. Nobody danced it. (N.C. Dance Theater used to perform a frighteningly fresh version choreographed by Sal Aiello, but the company rarely does work by its former artistic director now.) 

Carolina Performing Arts and the University of North Carolina put together a multi-faceted celebration of the piece, with performances and critical analysis that lasted throughout recent months. I didn't need that level of commitment, but I was surprised that nobody in Mecklenburg County awakened to the possibility at all. Is "Rite" still too tough for Charlotte audiences to take, 100 years later?