In 1962 Kenneth MacMillan became the nineteenth choreographer to attempt The Rite of Spring and one of the few to have done so with any success. Nijinsky’s original for the Diaghilev Ballet was only performed seven times: Stravinsky took a poor view of it and thereafter viewed The Rite as essentially a concert work. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Nijinsky’s choreography, one truth remained: that he had made the first ballet to have broken with academic technique and The Rite of Spring became a beacon of all that was modern.
MacMillan’s commission from the Royal Ballet came about almost by accident. Jerome Robbins had been asked to make a version of Les Noces to mark Stravinsky’s eightieth birthday. When he withdrew, MacMillan’s proposal for a new Rite was substituted. By 1962 Stravinsky loomed conspicuously large in Kenneth MacMillan’s music choices and it was his fifth ballet to a Stravinsky score.
The original work stemmed from the Diaghilev Ballet Russes’ fascination with Russia’s mythic past. In Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s scenario, a prehistoric people from the forests of Northern Russia sacrifice a virgin to the cosmic forces, which alone can make the spring come and ensure the continuity of the tribe. The scenario was retained by later choreographers including MacMillan. His innovation, was to switch hemispheres and, in tandem with his designer, Sidney Nolan, to re-enact The Rite in a nightmarish vision of aboriginal Australia. Nolan called the golden mushroom like totem pole on the backcloth of the second scene ‘Moonboy’, but to Cold War audiences it seemed like the cloud of a nuclear bomb explosion. The dancers wore ochre red and brown unitards, marked with handprints, suggestive of the daubed bodies of aboriginal peoples.
There are inherent problems in choreographing Stravinsky’s score. Its climax is powerful, but the early dances can be ritually static. MacMillan abandoned these highly nuanced rituals in favour of dramatic effect. The ballet’s complex choreographic patterns mean that it is best seen from above. MacMillan’s Rite is one of the few ballets to have a specially designed floorcloth.
“Mr MacMillan’s invention can never have been more musical or assured”, said The Times of the opening night Gala, attended by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. “ Time and again Stravinsky’s music, unaffectedly conducted by Mr Colin Davis meets its match, as the choreography, with its blend of primitivism and modern jive, piles climax on climax. At first sight, a thrilling ballet to which we will gratefully return.” “Alexander Bland of The Observer thought MacMillan’s new ballet a ‘really solid addition’ to the repertoire of a kind different from anything else. “Once the idiom of stage spectacle has been accepted, one can give nothing but praise. The profusion of invention and the way in which a new but not offensively quirkish style of movement is sustained is extraordinary. The company shows up excellently. Nolan’s sets are impressive and Monica Mason gives a tremendous performance as the sacrificial girl.”
Her performance as the Chosen One, made Monica Mason’s career. “A maiden excellently chosen”, wrote The Guardian’s critic. “She looks just a little more statuesque than most of her companions and she moves with an apparently easy grasp of the music’s rhythms and with a lissom authority.” The review continued. “Choreographer and designer have been at one: they have made sense – emotional sense.”