Monday, 29 May 2017


The "ungraceful" choreography of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring caused a riot in
1913 Paris. The jarring movements of the original production and the ballet
itself are now widely considered to have been ahead of their time.
Today, fans of the ballet are likely to reminisce upon a tale of a scandal so outlandish – and of such legendary status – it has infiltrated the invisible barrier between space and time, and permeated the seams of 21st century pop culture.

But the Ballet Russes’ premiere staging of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps – and the sensational scandal it so infamously provoked 104 years ago - was far from the last time the famous French Ballet Company - or the city of Paris - encountered such vitriolic strife.

A mere four years after the avant-garde innovations of Russian émigré Vaslav Nijinsky (that world famous ballerina-cum-choreographer) and his cohort, 20th century 'neo-classical' composer Igor Stravinsky infamously rocked Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (a succès de scandale allegedly fully anticipated by the Ballet Russes’ founder and impresario Sergei Diaghilev), yet another star-powered enterprise would violently shake up finely manicured Parisian tail feathers – and leave one highly celebrated (and very much disgruntled) composer to sit and stew behind the steely bars of a French jail cell.

Picasso's cubist-inspired costume for Satie's "Parade."
Some of the costumes, which were made of cardboard
and were therefore quite rigid, allowed for only the
smallest of movements by the dancers on stage, much
to the chagrin of many in the audience.
The pugilistic melée would occur, also in the month of May, in the year 1917. Involved in the latest scandal would be some of the famous characters of Stravinsky 1913: the Ballet Russes, and their aforementioned leader, Sergei Diaghilev.

The key players, however, have changed: swapping out Stravinsky for French hero Erik Satie, Vaslav Nijinsky for Léonide Massine, and the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. The new production would also include two powerhouse names: the French writer Jean Cocteau, who wrote the libretto; and renowned artist Pablo Picasso – who, unlike his infamous presence at the Rite of Spring in 1913, opted for the role of participator rather than spectator: taking on the hired role of set and costume designer.
Together, the super group would produce and stage the premiere production of a one-act extravaganza in Satie’s inaugural ballet “Parade.”

If sensitive Parisians were aghast at the “primitive” dress and the “sheer cacophony” of the Rite, they would undoubtedly find themselves abhorred with Picasso’s material of choice for the dancers of the Ballet Russes: cardboard.

And incensed they were. As if to rub salt in their wounds, patrons were left horrified by the sounds of typewriters, pistols, foghorns, and a vast array of noisemakers marking the score – undoubtedly leaving some to henceforth remember Le Sacre du Printemps in a more glorified light.

To make matters worse, rumor had it that the new principal dancer of the Ballet Russes (the aforementioned Léonide Massine), had only secured his coveted position with the company by bedding Diaghilev – whom gossips mused was using the ballerina as a replacement for former lover and principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, who had been dismissed by the impresario in 1913 following a missed performace and the latter's marriage to the Hungarian countess Romola de Pulszky.

The evening had "scandal" written all over it.

Tensions between audience and stage would reach a fevered pitch midway through the performance, as sections of the audience divided amongst one another – with one camp in favor of the avant-garde work - endeavoring to make themselves heard by enthusiastically applauding and cheering at the top of their lungs, and in the other – far more unruly – camp were the (very vocal) detractors - who booed, hissed and shouted obscenities – at one point even resorting to spewing racial epithets: shouts of "Sales boche!" ("Dirty Krauts!") were hurled at Satie and co.

Even the famous American poet and playwright E.E. Cummings, who was in attendance the eve of the premiere, partook in the tempest, attempting to ‘shout down' the critics whose noisemaking was beginning to reach deafening heights. Satie himself was incensed, and injected himself directly in the middle of the ruckus – and, quite literally, got slapped across the face for daring to do so by an angry audience member.

The scandal didn’t end when the curtain was drawn that evening – nor did the composer’s rage.

Erik Satie: eccentric is thy name
After being lambasted in the press, Satie - who wouldn’t, who couldn't, who outright refused to leave well enough alone - sent out a barrage of vitriolic postcards to critic Jean Poueigh, who had recently published a negative review of the ballet in the French newspaper Les Carnets de la Semaine.

Particularly annoyed by Poueigh's assertion that Satie lacked "competence, taste and musicality,” the composer addressed the pundit thusly:

“[To] Monsieur Fu_kface,” 

and, not to be outdone by any of Les Carnets’ readers who may have agreed with Poueigh and wished to chime in with a well placed barb of their own, Satie decided to beat them to the punch by referring to Poueigh (and his readers) as “[a] famous Gourd [headcase] and composer for nitwits!” 

In another exchange, Satie chose to keep it succinct:
“Sir and dear friend – you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed, Erik Satie."
Now, like any good anecdote, one might expect the story to have ended there.

But it didn’t:

Poueigh sued Satie for libel, and the composer was ultimately taken to trial and found guilty, fined 1,100 francs and thrown in jail for a little over a week. The disgruntled composer had not felt himself defeated, however: writing to the Princesse de Polignac[1] (who had offered to pay for the fine and damages awarded the plaintiff, and who, along with Diaghilev patron Misia Edwards, helped to secure his release) in 1918, Satie made it clear that he had “no intention of giving one cent to the noble critic who is the cause of my judiciary ills." I have a better idea, he wrote the princess, why not comp me for my living expenses instead? Polignac agreed, and in doing so, allowed Satie the luxury of having the last laugh.

Below: highlights from a recreated performance (1973) by the Europa Danse Academy:


[1] Winnaretta Singer, noted American émigré and patron of the arts; daughter of inventor Issac Merritt Singer (who created the modern sewing machine). Singer would play hostess at her private salon for a slew of influential and renowned 20th century musicians, writers, painters, and other members of the arts from 1888 well through to the outbreak of the Second World War. The Princess, who earned her title through marriage to the French Prince Edmond de Polignac, is widely considered to have been one of the most important patrons of classical music and the arts during the early twentieth century. 
Singer would also not only commission several works, but would also serve as dedicatee, the most notable among them being perhaps "Socrate" by Erik Satie, for which she served as commissioner, and Gabriel Fauré's  Les Cinq Mélodies de Venise, which was only but the first and major work to have been dedicated to the Princess by the celebrated French composer. has a lovely introductory piece on her life and on her many contributions to the arts - read it here. 

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