Royal New Zealand Ballet puts Stravinsky in the limelight

Of the various anniversaries this year (Liszt’s and Ambroise Thomas’s 200th birthdays, Menotti’s centenary, Mahler’s death in 1911, premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, the King James Bible, poet and music critic Théophile Gautier’s bicentenary, and much else*) the premiere of Stravinsky’s Petrushka deserves note. (see performance details in ‘Coming Events’).

It was his second ballet for Diaghilev – the first was The Firebird in 1910 – and the first in which, it is generally accepted, Stravinsky evidenced a real individuality. It was premiered on 13 June 1911 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. The Rite of Spring followed in May 1913, at the newly built Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (not on the Champs-Élysées); and it was that of course, via the riot and accompanying scandal, that made Stravinsky the most famous living composer (well, almost).

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is presenting a triple bill of Stravinsky ballets in their May/June season which opens in Wellington on the week-end 20-22 May. It then progresses through Auckland, Napier, finishing in Invercargill on 9 June. The damage to Christchurch’s Theatre Royal means the loss of those earlier-planned performances.

The three ballets:

Satisfied with Great Success – Scènes de ballet

The three ballets include two of the great three. Missing is The Firebird; in its place, as it were, is a little rarity which is disguised behind the title ‘Satisfied with Great Success’. The ballet in question is an abstract work simply entitled Scènes de ballet. It was commissioned by Billy Rose for a Broadway revue called The Seven Lively Arts, premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 7 December 1944. It was choreographed by Anton Dolin who, with Alicia Markova, danced the leading roles. .

Rose used only parts of the score that Stravinsky composed. After the preview in Philadelphia, Rose famously telegraphed Stravinsky as follows:


Of a trumpet tune in the Pas de deux, Lawrence Morton writes: “Remove from it the marks of genius, make it four-square, give it a Cole Porter lyric, and you have a genuine pop-tune.”

Three later choreographers have been involved with the music: Frederick Ashton choreographed it afresh for Sadler’s Wells Ballet, premiered on 11 February 1948 at Covent Garden. It was the first performance of all the music Stravinsky has written. There, it was very much a showcase for Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes.

The next production was to choreography by John Taras, who was ballet master at New York City Ballet, in the context of a now famous Stravinsky Festival following the composer’s death in 1971, premiered on 22 June 1972 in the New York State Theatre in the Lincoln Centre. , and Christopher Wheeldon provided new choreography for the School of American Ballet by New York City Ballet, premiered on 19 May 1999..

The music is open to limitless interpretations as it was conceived by Stravinsky without plot or any concept apart from ideas about certain dancers representing certain instruments. He wrote: The parts [eleven of them] follow each other as in a sonata or a symphony in contrasts or similarities”. It was conceived for two principals and a corps de ballet of four boys and two girls.

Here we have a (at least) fourth version, by expatriate New Zealander Cameron McMillan (no relation of course to the great choreographer Kenneth MacMillan).

According to the promotion, “the ballet unfolds in a series of electrically-charged scenes played out before 50-year-old film footage of Stravinsky in New Zealand”. But the sound will not be there as the accompanying soundtrack is apparently not good. The Wellington Orchestra will perform.

Stravinsky’s famous tour to New Zealand in 1961, at which he conducted just one concert, in Wellington, is one of the high points in the orchestra’s and New Zealand’s cultural history. With him was his associate/amanuensis/conductor/musicologist, Robert Craft. Craft conducted the first half, comprising the suite, Pulcinella, the Symphony in Three Movements and Apollon Musagète. Stravinsky conducted in the second half, two sections from The Firebird – the Lullaby and Finale (I was there).

Joy Tonks’s history of the NZSO records the remark Stravinsky made later to NZBS (before the name changed from NZ Broadcasting Service to Corporation) Head of Music Malcolm Rickard: ‘Why was I given only one programme to play with this fine orchestra?” “Because, Maestro”, said Rickard, “that was all you were prepared to do”.

“But I didn’t know they are so good”, Stravinksy replied and looked reproachful.

However, The Firebird is not one of the ballets in the RNZB’s current season.


The evening begins however with Petrushka. (The common spelling, Pétrouchka, is the French version. As such it should have an acute accent on the ‘é’). Petrushka is the exact English transliteration of the Russian (Петрушка).

Wikipedia records the following comments about its reception in Paris and elsewhere: “While the production was generally a success, some members of the audience were taken aback by music that was brittle, caustic, and at times even grotesque. One critic approached Diaghilev after a dress rehearsal and said, “And it was to hear this that you invited us?” Diaghilev succinctly replied, “Exactly”. When Diaghilev and his company traveled to Vienna in 1913, the Vienna Philharmonic initially refused to play the score, deriding Petrushka as ‘schmutzige Musik’ (“dirty music”): a foretaste of Hitler’s treatment of much contemporary art and music as ’Entartete Kunst’ – ‘degenerate art’.

Sir Jon Trimmer performs the role of Puppet Master, but, in the words of the publicity, the person pulling the strings behind the scenes in Russell Kerr who has a 52-year relationship with the company – in other words he started during the company’s first decade of existence; and he first prepared Petrushka for the then New Zealand Ballet in 1964, having worked with the London Festival Ballet where he learned the repertoire alongside the masters who created the ballets of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Petrushka was one of them.

Kerr and other dancers from London Festival Ballet were thus able to ensure that the choreography was faithful to the 1911 original. His role now is the same.

Milagros – The Rite of Spring

Le sacre du printemps – The Rite of Spring – was the ballet, and the music itself, that really made Stravinsky the most famous composer of his day, a position he retained throughout his life, though it is fair to say that his place in 20th century music has altered in the last forty years with the emergence of certain younger composers of comparable stature (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Berg, Messiaen, Britten, Martinů, Lutoslawski…) and the reappraisal of others such as Schoenberg, Rachmaninov, Sibelius and Richard Strauss.

Here the company is reviving its 2003 production of their own commissioning of an account of the ballet by Venezualan dancer and choreographer Javier de Frutos, called Milagros, which employs a rare piano roll version of the score performed by Stravinsky himself.

According to dance commentator Anne-Marie Daly-Peoples writing in 2005, “De Frutos has brought accolades to the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Milagros was first staged by the company in 2003 recently earning itself a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Best New Dance Production and Best Choreography (Modern) at Britain’s Critic’s Circle Dance Awards.

“Wherever Milagros may be performed, no doubt they will be aware that it was created for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. That is its legacy, performed for the first time here in Wellington.”

Versions by other choreographers are to be expected since Nijinsky’s original choreography was not properly preserved and has been reconstructed by various hands since. One of the least happy was that used in Disney’s Fantasia where the music was re-ordered and changed and, according to Stravinsky, execrably played. He felt that the animations, on the other hand, had understood the work.

Wikipedia has a good account of the origins, transformations both musically and choreographically, of the Rite. We quote:

“Stravinsky made two arrangements of The Rite of Spring for player piano. In late 1915, the Aeolian Company in London asked for permission to issue both the Rite and Petrushka on piano roll, and by early 1918 the composer had made several sketches to be used in the more complex passages. Owing to the war, the work of transcribing the rolls dragged on, and only the Rite was ever issued by Aeolian on standard pianola rolls, and this not until late 1921, by which time Stravinsky had completed a far more comprehensive re-composition of the work for the Pleyela, the brand of player piano manufactured by Pleyel in Paris.

“The Pleyela/pianola master rolls were not recorded using a “recording piano” played by a performer in real time, but were instead true “pianola” rolls, cut mechanically/graphically, free from any constraints imposed by the ability of the player. Musicologist William Malloch observed that on these rolls the final section is at a considerably faster tempo, relative to the rest of the composition, than in the generally used orchestral score.

“Malloch opines—based upon this evidence, the composer’s revisions of the orchestral score, and a limited number of very early phonographic recordings of performances—that Stravinsky originally intended the faster tempo, but found that significant numbers of orchestral players at the time were simply unable to manage the rhythmic complexity of the section at that tempo, and accordingly revised the tempo markings. The Benjamin Zander recording [with the Boston Symphony Orchestra] includes both the pianola version, and the orchestral Rite with the faster tempo restored to the final section. A low-fidelity recording is available.”

Even before the orchestral score was finished Stravinsky wrote a four hands version which he and Debussy played. It was in this form that the ballet was first published, the full orchestral score not being published till 1921.

All in all, the Royal New Zealand Ballet looks set to present an extremely interesting programme that both honours the composer and presents imaginative versions of two supreme masterpieces, plus a revival of the less familiar Scènes de Ballet.

*A few other opera centenaries: Saint-Saëns’s Déjanire, Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole, Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, Mascagni’s Isabeau, Zandonai’s Conchita, Wolf-Ferrari’s The Jewels of the Madonna

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