To the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at St Hilda’s College on Wednesday 20th February for The Rite of Spring: A Centenary Celebration of the Music and the Ballet. The event was organised by Dr Susan Jones, now Lecturer in English and a Tutorial Fellow of the college, but previously a soloist with Scottish Ballet. Guest speakers were Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the V&A and co-curator of the museum’s highly successful exhibition Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 2010-11, and Dame Monica Mason, former Director of the Royal Ballet and the original interpreter of the role of the Chosen Maiden in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the ballet.
Jane Pritchard set the scene with an expert and informative account of the controversial original production and the riotous reception of its first performance. Tantalisingly elusive since no action photographs or film exist, Nijinsky’s choreography and this historic occasion were skilfully evoked through visual imagery including the Roerich designs and Valentin Gross’ fleeting sketches done in the moment. Dame Monica insightfully and entertainingly recalled her experience as a young dancer collaborating with Kenneth MacMillan in the creation of his powerful version in 1962, and we watched snippets of grainy but precious footage, lost in admiration of her intensely committed and abandoned performance.
Dr Jonathan Williams, St Hilda’s Director of College Music, gave a brief but enlightening introduction to the score, drawing attention to Stravinsky’s radical uses of simple building blocks of tonality, melody, harmony and rhythm to build up powerful and original complexity, but also to snatches of traditional Russian folk melodies embedded and transformed. And finally we sat mesmerised as Joseph and Daniel Tong gave a barnstorming performance of the piano version for two players, their four hands delicately interweaving in tremulous mystery or crashing out pulsing discords. I marvelled again how unerringly Stravinsky taps into the dance within, the kinaesthetic power of his music compelling a bodily response in the listening dancer.
Oxford University does not include dance as an independent subject of study, so it was heartening to see that this commemoration of dance and music, bringing together scholarship and practitioner wisdom from both disciplines to illuminate a major work, had drawn a teeming and respectful audience. In addition to students, academics and local dance community, among those in the animated throng afterwards were Mark Baldwin of Rambert Dance, choreographer Kate Flatt, Professor Stephanie Jordan and dance writer Alastair Macaulay; suggesting that Oxford is after all not so far to come for dance events of interest…