Paris, 29 May 1913
Everything was beautiful at the ballet. Romantic melodies by Chopin, graceful sylphs shimmered in white, Russian dreamboat Nijinsky danced in the moonlight. The first act at the brand new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was what everyone expected. But as the music of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) began the second part of the program, the audience twitched, twittered and turned hostile.
“One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music,” said Gertrude Stein (who actually saw the second performance four days later.) Popular composer Puccini (also attending the second night) called the music cacophonous, “the work of a madman.” Suddenly everyone who was anyone in Paris wanted to see what kind of ballet had caused a riot in the theatre on its opening night.
Was it Stravinsky’s discordant music that irritated the traditional sensibility of the Parisian elite? Or was it Nijinsky’s stomping, jumping, twirling choreography depicting a pagan ritual in bright Himalayan costumes? Whatever the case, riot is probably too strong a word for the audience reaction. But now many consider it a pivotal moment in Western cultural history: the birth of Modernism.
Paris, 26 May 2013
I thought about The Rite of Spring on Sunday when another “riot” shook the French capital. More than 150,000 people took to the streets to protest the legalization of same-sex marriage. The demonstrations began in January and increased in intensity over the past five months, fueled by the Catholic Church and conservative groups.
At first I was mystified. Wasn’t France as secular as the Netherlands? Didn’t the Enlightenment begin there? Naïve questions, I’ll admit. The somewhat complicated explanations are best left to others more well-versed in politics than I – like an article in The Guardian where this caught my eye:
“The most radical protesters have grouped together under the banner Printemps Français (French spring), a loose grouping of traditionalists and far-right associations, which the French interior ministry last week threatened to outlaw.”
There it was. Another rite of spring. Another pivotal moment. Only this moment was taking years. The Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage back in 2001. Twelve years later France was the 14th country to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into this 21st century of social modernism. Ironically, the first marriage of two gay Frenchmen takes place on the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps.
I look at the pictures of the demonstration and am surprised to see the protesters have adopted the color pink. I smile. Aside from the obvious connection to the Pink Triangle, I’m reminded of a scene in queer filmmaker Derek Jarman’s The Garden (1990). In one brilliant sequence two men pledge their love against a backdrop of gay pride parade images accompanied by the song Think Pink from the 1957 movie Funny Face. Of course, the French protestors wouldn’t have a clue about that.
Last summer in New York I met my youngest cousin’s new boyfriend, a charming musician who works for the Leonard Bernstein foundation. Yesterday evening he related a disturbing incident on Facebook. It was a lovely evening to walk home after a Memorial Day BBQ in Astoria, Queens. A couple of blocks away he heard a taunting voice ask, “Where you headed, faggot?” The usually polite Texan with a fondness for bow ties turned and enquired, “Were you speaking to me?” “That’s right, faggot,” said the young thugs as they approached him.
He’d always felt that if anyone in NYC had the audacity to pull some homophobic shit on him, he wouldn’t take it without responding in kind. He clocked the first guy in the throat with his fist, spun around, and kicked the other guy in the balls. While they were both down, he did the smart thing. He ran. Only once he was safely home did the full impact of the disturbing encounter hit him, and he wept in anger and frustration.
Two days earlier he had posted:
“I’ve been listening to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and Barber’s ‘Medea’s Dance of Vengeance’ on a continuous loop the past few days…Nothing like a visceral, violent and beautiful playlist to work shit out…”
I’m not sure what he was trying to work out, but I can’t help thinking about the empowering effect Stravinsky’s music might have instilled in him. Especially since just last week he’d performed at the Stonewall Inn, which was still reeling from a gay man’s murder only blocks away. A piece on BuzzFeed LGBT by Saeed Jones expresses thoughts I’ve also heard in Amsterdam:
“…there are no true cities of refuge. Cities, by their nature, are organisms, ever evolving and shifting. The idea of New York City, the glimmering concrete refuge for queer folks, artists, and freaks, however romantic, is increasingly becoming a myth.”
My previous blog post On Becoming an Aggressive Homosexual suddenly seemed too ironic in tenor. There was nothing tongue-in-cheek about my friend’s post: a call to arms for queers to unite and fight back. I won’t say it’s the right thing to do for everyone in every situation. But it reminds me of the passion with which Leonard Bernstein conducted Stravinsky’s groundbreaking musical opus – a passion we could all take as inspiration.