Sunday, 14 May 2017


This weekend’s featured film is BBC’s 2005 historical drama “Riot at the Rite,” starring Andy Garcia and Griff Rhys Jones.

The one-and-a-half hour semi-biopic concerns the famously tumultuous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1913, and follows the late career of Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky as the ballerina struggles with both a maddening perfectionism and a sense of apathy as he teeters on the precipice of full blown schizophrenia – a highly incapacitating mental illness that would eventually rob the Parisian star* from both the French and international stage.

The film simultaneously explores the back story of the making of Stravinsky’s avant-garde masterpiece – the anticipation, disgust, revelry and exploitation of the infamous work; it’s disastrous premiere, and the highly politicized atmosphere of the Ballet Russes and it’s cunning founder and impresario, Sergei Diaghilev.

The story of the Rite of Spring is legendary – it has been covered extensively on this blog – look to the Stravinsky/Nijinsky archives here on Unraveling Musical Myths for posts on the ballet, and for a quick rundown of the scandalous 1913 premiere (and to view an impressive performance by French dancer and choreographer Marie-Claude Pietragalla as the “Chosen One,”) click here to read my article on the now infamous debut.

As is the case with most historical re-enactments, some artistic liberties are to be expected. Riot at the Rite bears no exception to this rule. Chiefly, there is the subject of the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev. Whilst some modern critics continue to debate the true nature of Nijinsky’s sexuality - specifically his alleged bi-sexuality or heterosexuality – it should be noted that Nijinsky himself recorded in his own diary that he was “forced” into a carnal relationship with the Impresario in exchange for a role onstage with the Ballet Russes by the Prince Pavel Lvov, himself a wealthy older lover of the then-impoverished Nijinsky.

Vaslav writes: “Prince Lvov forced me to be unfaithful to him with Diaghilev because he thought that Diaghilev would be useful to me. I was introduced to Diaghilev by telephone.”

Sergei Diaghilev (L) and Igor Stravinsky.
Allegedly, Nijinsky and Diaghilev would meet the very same day to exchange carnal relations, with the resulting employment granted upon the dancer post-coitus. Such transactions, where the industry of ballet was concerned, were known to have taken place in both Russia and in Western Europe during the early twentieth century.

In addition, Nijinksy’s relationship with (and subsequent marriage to) the female countess Romola Pulszky of Hungary following the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 is somewhat misguided in the film. Although it is true the countess ‘stalked’ the performances of Nijinsky across Europe (after having first laid eyes upon the performer in Budapest in 1912), the unlikely pair were initially unable to understand one another due to the disadvantage of a language barrier. The two famously communicated via hand gestures and ‘miming.’

In spite of a few historical inaccuracies, Riot at the Rite proves to be a wholly entertaining – if a touch campy – viewing experience for lovers of music, dance, and belle époque Paris. Perhaps most notable about the film is the on stage re-enactment of the ballet itself – expertly performed by The Finnish National Ballet, who flew to London (where filming for the movie took place) to be cast in the picture.

In March 2006 David Snodin, the films’ producer, told UK newsprint The Independent that watching Zenaida Yanowsky, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet perform the solo in Printemps’ concluding act ("The Dance of the Chosen One") was like watching an elite athlete nailing an Olympic feat:
"She sounded like Serena Williams on Centre Court. You don't see the sheer exertion of ballet when they're on stage, but the cameras take you right there next to her. You can see the sweat flying off her.
When she finished the dance you could have heard a pin drop. There was this long pause before Andy shouted cut. Then everyone went wild, roaring bravos..."

to which Adam Garcia (who played Nijinsky in the film) added, "I finally got what it was all about, what a genius Nijinsky was. People would be hard pushed to choreograph a dance like that now with all the years of contemporary dance to guide them."

Indeed. For the Finns’ performance alone, Riot at the Rite is a film worth watching. Discover it below:

*Nijinsky was himself a Russian of Polish descent, however his fame in Paris led many French nationals to 'claim' him as their own.
Bonus video:

Listen below to a historical recording of "the Rite" with Stravinsky himself at the helm (recorded at the Columbia Studios of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 7 - 10 May, 1929)


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