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Tristram Kenton

Opera North | Phoenix Dance Theatre

The Rite of Spring

A new, celebratory take on a cornerstone of modernism

Dance | Stravinsky

Characters from Haitian folklore come to life telling their story of ritual, ceremony and celebration. All wait to be overcome by the female spirit Erzuli. Who will be chosen?


Internationally-acclaimed Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus reimagines The Rite of Spring in Opera North’s first ever collaboration with the contemporary dance ensemble Phoenix Dance Theatre. Set to Stravinsky’s ground-breaking score, Saintus’ fresh interpretation subverts the original narrative’s notion of female sacrifice and approaches the work through his own roots, creating a shared vodou experience with the dancers.

Recorded on 16 February 2019 at Leeds Grand Theatre. Opera North in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre.

Available from
23.07.2021 at 19h00 CET

Available until
23.01.2022 at 12h00 CET

DancersManon Arianow
Natalie Alleston
Carmen Vasquez Marfil
Carlos J. Martinez
Michael Marquez
Vanessa Vince-Pang
Prentice Whitlow
Aaron Chaplin
OrchestraOrchestra of Opera North

MusicIgor Stravinsky
ConductorGarry Walker
Costume DesignerYann Seabra
Lighting DesignerRichard Moore
ChoreographerJeanguy Saintus
Rehearsal and tourTracy Tinker
By permission of Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd

Part I: The Adoration of the Earth
Augurs of Spring
Ritual of Abduction
Spring Rounds
Ritual of the Rival Tribes
Procession of the Sage
Dance of the Earth

Part II: The Sacrifice
Mystic Circles of the Young Girls
Glorification of the Chosen One
Evocation of the Ancestors
Ritual Action of the Ancestors
Sacrificial Dance

The Rite of Spring: An introduction

One of the most influential pieces of music and cultural events of the early 20th century was undoubtedly Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Discover more about the piece, from its infamous premiere to the Opera North’s production in collaboration with Phoenix Dance theatre.

How did The Rite of Spring come about?

The Rite of Spring was written by Igor Stravinsky, who was quite young at the time, and relatively unknown. He had been talent-spotted by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris, and had already composed two ballet scores for Diaghilev’s own company ‘Ballets Russes’: The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911).

The third commission – The Rite of Spring (subtitled ‘Pictures of Pagan Russia’) – was quite a departure from what had come before. In Stravinsky’s own words, this is how the concept came to him:

'I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.'

He then approached the painter Nicholas Roerich, who specialised in pagan subjects, to collaborate with him on the scenario – two parts, broken into a series of episodes, which depict various rituals. The celebrated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was appointed as choreographer, even though his last work, the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) based on Debussy’s symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, had caused controversial reactions.

Did the premiere really cause a riot?

The Rite of Spring’s 1913 premiere in Paris has gone down in history as one of the greatest theatrical furores of the 20th Century. In his 1936 autobiography, Stravinsky recalls that 'derisive laughter' began after only the first few bars, and that things quickly escalated to a 'terrific uproar'.

Whether it was the radical music, or Nijinsky’s angular and grounded (rather than air-borne) choreography – or both – which offended the audience’s idea of what ballet should be, is unclear. In any case, Stravinsky left his seat to watch from the wings, where Nijinsky was standing on a chair shouting numbers to the dancers, who could no longer hear above the mayhem in the auditorium. Meanwhile Diaghilev apparently kept ordering the electricians to turn the lights on or off, hoping in that way to put a stop to the noise.

Why was the score so revolutionary?

When The Rite of Spring premiered, audiences had never heard anything like it – in rhythm, stress and tonality, it was groundbreaking. Stravinsky wrote:

'Very little immediate tradition lies behind The Rite of Spring – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite passed.'

This threw up more than a few problems at the time. Stravinsky found it difficult to notate music of such rhythmic complexity and express on paper what he meant, and the original orchestral musicians had to be asked to stop interrupting in rehearsals when they thought they had found mistakes.

To our ear today, it still sounds radical – it is an eternally modern score. The piece opens with a bassoon melody played in a high register (making the instrument hard to identify at first), which sounds otherworldly and disturbing. This is followed by the first dance, which is characterised by a repeated, stamping chord, where the accented beat constantly shifts. The final ‘sacrificial dance’ is heavily percussive. The production’s conductor Garry Walker says:

'The rhythms of The Rite of Spring are so elemental. At the end, you just have to dance to it – it’s almost hypnotic.'

What is this choreography like?

Opera North’s The Rite of Spring, in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre, is choreographed by Haitian-born Jeanguy Saintus. He departs from Stravinsky’s original narrative of sacrifice, which Saintus considered to be sexist through our contemporary lens. Instead, he approaches the work through his own cultural roots, inviting the eight company Phoenix Theatre dancers to explore Haitian vodou, with its spirits and rituals:

'I told myself, instead of sacrificing a girl or a woman, why don’t we think of the ritual as call and response, and a give and take between the realm of humans and the ‘Invisibles’ (intermediary spirits between the Supreme Creator and the world in Haitian vodou)? Why don’t we make a ‘promise’ as an offering?'

Each of these spirits has a distinctive character and personality, and the audience will get to know and recognise them through the choreography. The idea of a central circle, which is important in Haitian vodou is also prominent.  Through the presentation of these narratives, Saintus' work challenges the dark Western stereotypes often associated with vodou and instead presents these rituals in a new, celebratory light..

What are the costumes like?

Designer Yann Seabra’s costumes for our Rite of Spring are incredibly colourful – with different colours representing the different spirits. Male and female dancers initially wear the same, but these costumes are added throughout the piece, with flowing skirts.

Most strikingly of all, the dancers each wear gloves matching their own skin tone, which have then been dipped in dye, giving the illusion of painted hands.