The Composer and The Choreographer

when stravinsky met nijinsky_hresWhen Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot
By Lauren Stringer
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

Think orchestra music and ballet are genteel diversions? Imagine their audiences always sit silently with rapt attention? Think again. In 1913, composer Igor Stravinsky and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky premiered their ballet, The Rite of Spring, for Parisian audiences. Far from being a sedate event, the performance, with its discordant music and movements reminiscent of Russian folk dances, stunned the crowd. Some spectators celebrated the new sounds and sights; others expressed their dismay – loudly. Soon, fighting broke out between the two factions in the aisles and outside the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Scholars often cite the riot provoked by The Rite of Spring as a seminal moment in musical and cultural history.

In When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, Lauren Stringer introduces young readers and listeners to the famous partnership. Far from a dry musical history lesson, the book uses rhyme, alliteration, and metaphor to bring the artists and their work to life. Stringer writes of Nijinsky’s dance, “His torso trumpeted a melody, / his arms and legs sang from strings, / and his feet began / to pom-di-di-pom like timpani.” This is not your typical picture book in verse; Stringer’s poetry is as surprising as the music and dance it evokes. And while the book celebrates collaboration and innovation in art, Stringer’s tone is playful, rather than reverential. She enjoys the fact that Stravinsky rhymes with Nijinsky and encourages readers to do the same. Stringer’s illustrations echo this spirited mixture of admiration and whimsy. Dancers and musical notes caper over some spreads; others seem to implode with color, just as Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s work burst upon their first audience. In her author’s note, Stringer describes how some of her illustrations reflect the work of Matisse, Picasso, and other visual artists of the era: she hopes to convey the rapid changes in all of the arts during the early twentieth century.

When Stravinsky met Nijinsky offers something for readers of all ages. But Stringer never forgets that a picture book must engage children. Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s animals – a dachshund and a ginger cat, respectively – scamper and twirl over most of the book’s pages. Their presence suggests that creating art, even the most startling and unconventional, is a fun process.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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