In 1913, a composer hailing from Russia named Igor Stravinsky wrote the work “The Rite of Spring,” the last of his three great early works. Choreography for the piece was made by Vaslav Nijinsky. Up to this point, ballets were the epitome of grace and artistic beauty. Slender young woman moving their bodies like swans across the stage, as serene orchestral music plays, almost as a partner for her to take the lead in her dance.
Stravinsky and Nijinsky took a different approach with their piece. Instead of tranquil music, the work would be jagged, as the strings did less moving like a leaf in the wind and more like a knife on a wire. The drums were as heavy and menacing as a John Bonham solo. And the swan-like dancing of traditional ballets was replaced with a controlled chaos of Nijinsky’s direction. The initial reaction was harsh, with audience members and critics storming out, booing and calling it “the work of a madman.”
Yet, in that controlled chaos of the music and the dancing over 100 years ago, “The Rite of Spring” remains one of the greatest works of the 20th century. There is a beauty in what a common eye would perceive as madness. There is an art.
Which brings us to a modern artistic practice that is so often taken for granted. The world of sports has dealt with some unfavorable stereotypes. The dumb jock, meatheads and spoiled to name a few. In terms of artistic value in their respected games, no matter the game, people tend not to give much thought to any except figure skating, which is essentially ballet on ice.
Individual sports, like boxing and tennis, is looked at as a contest.
Author Taylor Branch, who in 1979 co-wrote a memoir about Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell with Russell, describe the athletes’ relationship with his greatest rival, Wilt Chamberlain.
“All sport is a mixture of art and war. If it was all war it wouldn’t have any beauty and it wouldn’t have the attraction and if it was all art it wouldn’t have any competition and it would be in a museum,” they wrote.
Sports are not a ballerina dancing across a stage with fake trees in the background to the sound of classical music. The world of athletics has more in common with Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Even when it seems like there is nothing but insanity and noise happening on the stage, all the members of the band understand their place in the song and they all work together as one. It would be quite easy to tell when something goes wrong on stage, as well as when something goes wrong on the field, rink or court.
Watch American football, soccer or basketball long enough and there is a phrase that comes up in the middle of the game. “There’s been a breakdown in the defense” or, “There was a miscommunication.”
Usually, this phrase is uttered when a wide receiver catches a 40-yard pass with no defenders around him or when a center in basketball is all alone in the paint. Within the game, there is a ballet going on. Like “The Rite of Spring,” as the dancers stomp around on stage, run across and fall together, there is a unison between everybody. If someone in the play falls down when they should have been throwing their hands up in jubilation, it would be noticeable. The controlled chaos just turned into chaos.
Sports is like a dance. The fighter enters the ring and is met with his mirror self. The two dance around the confined space, looking and waiting for the time to strike. The sprinters take their starting spots, and at the firing of a pistol, they are off, running in perfect unison like a zebra herd before one, in the cluster of legs and arms moving, sticks out to make a perfect image.
Or, we can look at Russell and Chamberlain. Two men. No, two Goliaths enter the space only 16 ft wide. One stands at 6’10 with a wingspan of a man 7’4. The other stands at 7’1 and close to 300 lbs. The two move together, like a shadow, as one attempts to position himself to take the ball and put it in the hoop. The other does all he can to prevent this.
This is the war that Russell was talking about. This is the chaos part of the controlled chaos of sports. Like the heroes and gods of Greek mythology, like Achilles or Perseus, the athletes in these games are at the peak of physical strength and fitness. There is both a beauty to the ballet of sports, but also intense emotion and anger in it, just like Stravinsky’s magnum opus.
There is a beauty in watching the defensive talents of Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Ali, as tall and long as he is, moves so smoothly as he keeps his hands at his side and simply backs his head away from oncoming jabs. Mayweather gets close to his opponents, mocking them to hit him, and in a barrage of punches, he leaves danger unmarked. And there is a beauty in Mike Tyson and the power he generates. Ducking and weaving like a hummingbird close enough where his 5’10 frame can generate the power to knock down a grown man, like a woodsman chopping down a great redwood towering over him.
In recent years, Sports Illustrated realized this and published an issue with athletes around the sports world posing nude to show off their physique, like the statues of Classical antiquity. Unlike the also popular edition of the magazine, which more resembles something out of Hustler or Playboy, the focus is not just the sexualization of the athletes’ bodies, but the power as well. These athletes put in tremendous hours of work and dieting to do their crafts, which is probably the best way to describe their sports. It is a craft which required a lifetime of dedication in order to understand to build up the mental capacity to perform it, as well as the physical tear the body endures.
Some art looks likes Da Vinci or Michelangelo, painting and sculpting magnificent images of Christendom during the Renaissance. Others are Salvador Dali putting a lobster on a phone or Andy Warhol copy and pasting Campbell’s soup. Some are “Swan Lake” and others are the “Rite of Spring.” Art can take many different forms, or in the case of music, no form at all. Why should that change just because the artist performs on television at 9 o’clock?