Stravinsky’s forever modern masterpiece

  • Themes: ballet, Classical music

A genre-defying interpretation of Stravinsky's Les Noces, that melds bodies, music and dance, is vibrantly modern.

Les Noces at Woolwich Works.
Les Noces at Woolwich Works. Credit: Jack Thomson

One day in June 1923, to the horror of the butler, four pianos appeared at the door of a grand Parisian apartment. They belonged to American socialite Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac and heiress to the eponymous sewing machine dynasty. ‘Madame le Princesse, four pianos have arrived…’ – ‘So let them in then’, she reportedly replied. They were there for the first play through of Les Noces, a new ballet-cantata from Igor Stravinsky, commissioned ten years earlier by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes, and about to receive its inaugural staging from Bronislava Nijinska. One hundred years later, New Movement Collective offered London audiences a rare opportunity to hear and see Stravinsky’s piece as part of Les Noces – The Departure at Woolwich Works, alongside three new compositions.

Stravinsky first imagined Les Noces for an orchestra of over 150, larger even than Le sacre du printemps; other versions were mooted, including ones with cimbalom, harmonium, and winds. Finally, the pared-back iteration most performed (all too seldom) emerged: a bleached, idiosyncratic ensemble of voices and struck instruments in the shape of four pianos and percussion. The music gets its rawness from this atavistic mixture of breath and impact: diaphragm, hammer, and drum skin.

The text, of Stravinsky’s own devising, is deliberately fragmentary, intended to resemble scraps of overheard conversation, rather like the contrapuntal jigsaw of the ‘Sirens’ episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Their cells are rearranged and repeated, as if you are trapped circling the same bustling room; its melodies, built from narrow, recursive figures, have the same confining effect. Bright, open textures – a splash of cymbal and spare octaves in piano – are taut and refreshing; the declamatory cries both ecstatic and agonised; sometimes there are downbeat hints of Orthodox chant.

Les Noces was a meeting of leading creative figures in Stravinsky, Nijinska, the Ballet Russes, and cubo-futurist Natalia Goncharova; as if to gild the artistic lily, the premiere saw the only ever (abortive) meeting of Joyce and Proust. The nature of the collaboration engineered by New Movement Collective therefore rang true. There aren’t many shows that would see this group of artists cross paths: the chorus of Opera Holland Park, a quartet of singers, musicians from the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music, beatboxer Jack Hobbs, and dancers from the Manchester-based Chameleon Youth and English National Ballet’s youth company, ENBYouth. Stravinsky’s score was complemented by original music from Andrea Balency-Béarn, Yshani Perinpanayagam – who also conducted – and MC Zani. It takes a village to organise a wedding: New Movement Collective’s nine dancers shared the co-choreography credit.

Accordingly the programme was a cymbal clash of genres: contemporary dance, electro-acoustic soundscape, beatboxing, and even the lieder tradition; a fine response to the superimposed forms and styles that make up Les Noces, which draws on cantata, melodrama, modernist primitivism, and the folk-inflected dance experiments of the Ballet Russes. Staging it in the round at the Fireworks Factory in Woolwich – a flexible, post-industrial performance space – rather than a traditional theatre further amplified the exploratory, genre-defying aspect of the work, whose action took place on a central catwalk.

Les Noces exemplifies Stravinsky’s trick of summoning something that sounds both very old and brand new; though a piece ostensibly ‘about’ primitive Russian folk culture, its sound world was so striking that George Antheil would rip it off for his ultra-modern though comparatively dull Ballet Mécanique in 1924. It moves through four scenes: the braiding of the Bride’s hair; a raucous scene at the Groom’s house; the Bride’s send-off; and the wedding feast, which concludes with the assembled guests waiting outside the married couple’s bedroom.

Les Noces has the cold eye of the ethnographer, and with it, perhaps, a certain critical distance that has led many to see Nijinska’s treatment of the scenario as proto-feminist in its examination of ritual and duty. The show began with an electro-acoustic soundscape from Balency-Béarn, Appels, based on the bell that tolls the end of Stravinsky’s piece, and whose austere alien landscape, built from sudden eruptions and whispered gestures, was the point of departure for a very unromantic wedding party.

Cage Letters, Perinpayagam’s setting of love letters from composer John Cage to Merce Cunningham, underlined the collaborative, experimental heart of Les Noces. Cunningham’s choreography and dance was always multidisciplinary, pulling in the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Brian Eno, and Rei Kawakubo. Cage, too, was a boundary-crossing polymath – as much philosopher and performance artist as composer – and, by ‘preparing’ the piano through inserting screws, rubber bands, erasers, and bolts between their strings, created some of the most ancient and percussive music ever realised on the instrument. A shame, then, that the programme didn’t give voice to Cage’s music as well as his words, either in his work for piano or, say, amplified succulents.

The intimacy of their letters – elliptical and mischievous by turns – stood in good-humoured contrast to Les Noces’ rather more sober picture of relationships between men and women; Ross Ramgobin sang a beautiful setting beautifully – but the very enormity of the space worked against the intimacy afforded by music for piano and voice, which is why Schubert’s Winterreise is never performed in Wembley Stadium.

Les Noces itself, though, was riveting. Many of New Movement Collective are veterans of Rambert, so maintain an indirect connection to Diaghilev’s company by way of their founder, Marie. The choreography drew on a repertoire of some distantly classical gestures, as well as the intense, patterned ensemble movement that recalls Pina Bausch, and the muscular, active upper body that was a Nijinska hallmark. Solos and duets followed the pattern of Stravinsky’s ensemble writing, in a charged realisation of the score. Their bolero jackets were turned into bridal train and veil, as well as a leash and cradle. Symbolism, like the movement, was crisp and unfussy. The feeling is that of an abstract but totally embodied ritual; tying the knot has seldom seemed so trepidatious, underlined by April Dalton’s unglamorous, off-white designs.

A space the size of the Fireworks Factory meant amplification for the voices. Its distorting effect gave the piece bracing edge, perhaps unintentionally so, though the English version of the text was only intermittently audible (its rather arcane translation could probably use a refresh, too). Instrumental performances were equally lively; the closing bars – single strokes on a tubular bell alongside spare octaves in the pianos – arrived with purifying rigour, giving way to birdsong. Apt, too, to have composer Yshani Perinpayagam helming the music. Les Noces has been a magnet for composers: Stravinsky enlisted Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland for his recording of the piece in 1959; in 1962 Richard Rodney Bennett and Edmund Rubbra played the pianos for the piece at Covent Garden; in his younger days Thomas Adès performed the piece under Simon Rattle.

Stravinsky’s works for the stage gave Nijinski and Nijinska the chance to make moving bodies into percussion instruments. The former had his ballerinas stamping with flat feet in Le sacre du printemps; the latter, in Les Noces, turned the pointe shoe into a drumstick, asking her dancers to hit the stage rather than glide seamlessly over it. Strange as it might seem, Jack Hobbs’ beatboxing, closing the show, was a pithy distillation of Nijinska and Stravinsky’s century-old project – intensely virtuosic and hypnotically physical. MC Zani’s Rhythmic Resurgence drew on the kinds of cross-rhythms and syncopations essential to Stravinsky’s music, if less eye-poppingly difficult; Chameleon Youth and ENBYouth moved with fervour. Perhaps not quite the ‘rebirth’ of Les Noces billed, but vibrant nonetheless. Indeed, it’s to no one’s discredit that Stravinsky’s music still sounded like the newest of all.


Benjamin Poore