You don’t expect fistfights or full-on brawls to happen at the premiere of a new ballet, but that’s exactly what happened when pianist and composer Igor Stravinsky debuted his The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) on May 29. 1913. The audience at the swanky Théâtre des Champs-Elysée in Paris didn’t seem like the punch-you-in-the-face type; one writer described the crowd as wearing “tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys.”
The accounts of the wild-ass night differ depending on the source, and exactly what set the attendees off isn’t totally clear either. The show’s plot — which involves a young girl who’s selected as a human sacrifice before she dances herself to death — didn’t help, and neither did the dissonant sounds of the score. The dancers’ movements also weren’t what you’d expect from…well, anyone who’d spent more than 15 straight minutes onstage. (Another French writer compared their efforts to a caged animal “butting its head against the bars.”)
Even Stravinsky wasn’t particularly impressed. “The curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided lolitas, jumping up and down. The storm broke,” he later said. “I went out, I said ‘go to hell’… they were very naïve and stupid people.”
Regardless of the whos and whys, things kicked-the-eff off. Some audience members threw vegetables at the orchestra. Furniture was knocked over and tossed around. One woman allegedly stabbed the guy beside her with her hatpin, men fought each other with their canes, and — in a move straight out of Looney Tunes — ”many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears.” The cops eventually rolled up and arrested at least 40 people, but the fighting still spilled out into the streets. (And at least one ballet-related duel went down the next day.)
Despite that chaotic night, The Rites of Spring has become a classic and is still regularly staged without incident. “The miracle of the piece is the eternal youth of it,” Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen said, just before his own 100th anniversary performance of the ballet. “The miracle of the piece is the eternal youth of it. It’s so fresh, it still kicks ass.”
Or sometimes it just gets your ass kicked.