The Rite of Spring: The Engagement


The Washington Post

“IT WAS THE BALLET heard ‘round the world. In 1913, when “The Rite of Spring” premiered in Paris—with a pulsating score by Igor Stravinsky and groundbreaking choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky—the audience went rock-concert wild, drowning out the music and pelting the Ballets Russes dancers with epithets. The ensuing pandemonium brought on a police raid. At the Ballet.

Even Today, the legendary “Riots of spring” remain an infamous instance of new-world modernism displacing old-guard classicism. But we’ll never know for sure what that evening was like, for while Stravinsky’s score later became a shimmering gem in the classical canon, Nijinsky’s “paganistic” choreography was performed less than a dozen times. No record of the steps that so shocked audiences exists today.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this mystery, all manner of choreographers have been drawn to Stravinsky’s masterwork, with its fragmented melodies, complex rhythms, pounding percussion and densely scored orchestra. From Martha Graham to Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch to Marie Chouinard, Glen Tetley to Angelin Preljocaj, dozens of dance luminaries have been seduced by the complexly polyphonic score.

Add San Francisco-based choreographer Trey McIntyre to the list, whose “Rite of Spring” is receiving its world premiere courtesy the Washington Ballet. His “Rite of Spring: The Engagement,” Friday through Sunday at the Kennedy Center, strips the work of the primitivism that so shocked early-20th-century audiences, taking as its setting an upper-class cocktail party in which a young woman’s marriage engagement is announced. Bump into McIntyre on Wisconsin Avenue outside the ballet’s studio and you’d be hard-pressed to label him a choreographer. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, McIntyre stood out in any corps de ballet, including the Houston Ballet, where he spent six years. Looking like a disheveled skateboarder with his no-brand jeans, hooded sweat shirt and knit cap pulled down over scraggly hair, McIntyre towers over his ballet charges. Yet he exhibits the unmistakable grace and athleticism of a dancer, even wearing deck shoes.

“I’m finding two strict aspects surfacing in my choreographic process,” McIntyre noted. “One is the technique and the craft of actually shaping a meaningful movement phrase, an interesting movement phrase, or a movement phrase that servees the [ballet’s] bigger concept. The other is the bigger concept. The idea is that specific aspects and moments make a piece resonate beyond the best-crafted movement you can make. The conceptual part takes a lot of tiem to understand…the point I’m going to make.”

Just 35, McIntyre is among a small subset of young choreographers enjoying national and international demand. In the last year alone, he has created seven separate works, both ballet and contemporary, and since his first foray into choreography at age 20, the McIntyre canon has grown to nearly 60 ballets. These include “Blue Until June,” “The Reassuring Effects of Form and Poetry” and “Memory of a Free Festival,” all created for the Washington Ballet in previous seasons.

For “Rite,” McIntyre has been working with his design team, including Liz Vandal whose gorgeous, flowing balle gowns nearly dance themselves; set designer Nicholas Phillips, who built a spare white room and wheeled cocktail tables; and even Artistic Director Septime Webre, an invaluable sounding board during McIntyre’s weeks in residence here.

The original ballet’s ending—the onstage sacrifice of a virgin in appeasement of ancient Slavic fertility rites—contributed mightily to the audience’s furor at the world premiere. McIntyre found an intriguing parallel: the idea of a contemporary woman sacrificing herself to follow a society’s mores. “There is a the sense of a woman socially being sacrifices,” he mused as the ballet’s creation neared completion earlier this month. “I also want to connect to the 20th century orchestral music,” McIntyre explained. “[The score] is thankfully pushing the boundaries of what orchestral music is…A piece like this that, after all these years, still feels completely modern, a revolutionary piece—of course I’m attracted to it. And I’m reverent them many previous versions of this ballet.””


  • Choreography: Trey McIntyre
  • Music: Igor Stravinsky
  • Costumes: Liz Vandal
  • Set: Nicholas Phillips
  • Lighting: Nicholas Phillips
  • Project Details

  • Premiere Company: The Washington Ballet
  • Date of Premiere: January 1, 2005