On the evening of May 29, 1913, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the newest venue in Paris, open for just over a month, was packed. According to a newspaper report: “Never. . . has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear.” What they were eager to see and to hear was a ballet program celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. Ticket sales were priced accordingly.
Parisian ballet audiences of the time fell into two distinct groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group favoring anything new and nontraditional because it would annoy the snobs in the boxes.
The evening began tranquilly with Les Sylphides, in which Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the main roles, followed by the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts) in which, after various primitive rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death.
There is a consensus among eyewitnesses and commentators that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, which was greeted by derisive laughter, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the “Augurs of Spring” with its pipers piping and dancers stomping. The terrific uproar, along with the on-stage noises, pretty much drowned out the performers. The two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their anger was soon diverted toward the orchestra, and anything not tied down was quickly thrown in its direction. The plucky orchestra played on. Forty or so of the most energetic offenders were forcefully ejected by the police who had arrived somewhere toward the end of Part I. Throughout all this the performance continued without interruption.
Things grew somewhat quieter during Part II, and by some accounts the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence, albeit with a certain amount of muttering. At the end there were several curtain calls (as opposed to catcalls) for the dancers, the orchestra, and Stravinsky before the evening’s program continued.
Press reviews called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” on one hand and “superb, with the disturbances, being merely a rowdy debate between two ill-mannered factions” on the other.
Paris survived. The Rite of Spring became a classic. And puerile barbarity is alive and well.