Composer Igor Stravinsky is revered for his dazzling scores to such ballets as "The Firebird," "Petrushka" and especially, "The Rite of Spring" — a ballet so revolutionary that its 1913 opening famously sparked a riot.
The debut of "The Rite" is such a red-letter date in music history that its centennial is being marked with no less than three scholarly conferences and more than 11 performances of either the score or the entire ballet. But what most Stravinsky lovers don't realize is that the Russian émigré, who eventually landed in Los Angeles in 1940, also was associated with a far less celebrated debut.
UCLA professor of musicology Tamara Levitz, one of the world's preeminent Stravinsky authorities, spent a decade unearthing the star-crossed story of "Perséphone," a 1934 ballet that played just three nights at the Paris Opéra before closing to negative reviews and the performance's collaborators at odds with one another.
In the failed collaboration, Levitz believes she has found a window on a little-known and contradictory time that shares key elements with our own. In her book "Modernist Mysteries: Perséphone" (Oxford University Press, 2012), she shows how the folly was largely the result of a tug of war between the first glimmerings of a gay rights movement and the rise of a religious right. In the opulent performance staged in France during the Great Depression, she also finds parallels to extravagances that she has witnessed in America's — and Los Angeles' — art scene since the 2008 downturn.
"You go into a moment that nobody cares about, and you realize that the whole world is in that little moment," Levitz said.
Performing below the barre
The ingredients certainly weren't to blame for the soufflé's collapse, Levitz found. Since antiquity, writers have successfully mined the myth about the abduction and descent into Hades of the daughter of harvest goddess Demeter. As a result of Demeter's grief in losing her daughter, living things cease to grow. To quell Demeter's grief, Zeus sends Hermes to the underworld to fetch Perséphone, who returns to earth, but only for two-thirds of the year. When Perséphone goes back to Hades, Demeter's grief returns, and living things again die, thus making her responsible for the cyclic nature of the growing season.
Ida Rubinstein, a former star performer with the famed Ballets Russes who bankrolled the production with her own vast inheritance, managed to assemble a dream team of collaborators: well-known author André Gide as the librettist, Stravinsky as composer and conductor, influential French theater director Jacques Copeau as director, and German expressionist choreographer Kurt Jooss.
Unfortunately, however, each collaborator saw a different reflection in the myth's mirror, Levitz found. Gide, already an activist for homosexual rights, had been rewriting the myth for decades in different forms as a metaphor for what Levitz describes as his "pédérastie, or love of young men in the Greek tradition." Stravinsky, who had returned to the Russian Orthodox church of his St. Petersburg youth, twisted Gide's celebration of the pleasures of the flesh into a manifestation of religious ceremony. Copeau also shared Stravinsky's desire to infuse the myth with sacred Christian rituals, but he wanted to celebrate the Catholic—not the Russian Orthodox—faith. Jooss, a secular and literal modernist, sought to communicate the message of the ancient myth through gestures imitated from ancient art and everyday movements.
For her part, Rubinstein, an icon and muse in Paris' lesbian community for her sinuous physique and the opulence of her ballet productions, had long identified with Perséphone, even posing in portraits that portrayed her as the mythical figure. In staging the production that fused singing, pantomime and spoken word with dance, the performer, by then almost 50, was trying to keep alive not just her career but also Symbolist theater, an aesthetic approach that was then about 20 years out of date but was favored by members of her lesbian circle.
It also didn't help that she cast herself as Perséphone and put a 26-year-old in the role of Perséphone's mother — or that she independently choreographed her own parts and kept the details from her collaborators until the day before the performance.
Moving out of the center
Not surprisingly, reviewers skewered the muddled results: "It is embarrassing to watch the burlesque scenic parody to which Mme. Rubinstein condemns this work," one wrote, summarizing sentiments.
Levitz is the descendent of Russian and Polish Jews, as well as Irish and English immigrants whose children ultimately settled in Quebec. So she was drawn to the story by its wealth of émigré characters: Rubinstein and Stravinsky could not return to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Jooss had fled Germany after the Nazis insisted that he fire Jews from his dance company.
"That's always my fascination — people who have moved out of their center and are working in a transnational setting," she said.
But it was the melodrama's tentacles that ultimately ensnared her. A Buenos Aires performance in 1936 influenced the development of literary modernism in Argentina. The influential teacher of composition Nadia Boulanger, a friend of Rubinstein who performed portions of "Perséphone" in concert days after its Paris premiere, went on to teach the score to generations of composers. Avant garde American theater director and UCLA professor Peter Sellars recently revived the ballet in Spain, citing a longtime fascination with the piece.
"The piece's historical life in the 20th century is out of scale with its initial reception," Levitz said.
As a result of her work, Levitz has been invited to serve as scholar-in-residence for "Stravinsky and His World," a two-week festival that will take place this August at Bard College in New York. Much to her delight, the festival will include a revival of "Perséphone."