Coco and Igor As Innovators

Gabrielle

by Rebecca Cochran

I just returned from a private* screening of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” the Jan Kounen film which closed the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and is now showing in U.S. theaters. Beautifully filmed and acted, the film spoke to me on multiple levels. As a serious classical musician, lover of Stravinsky’s music and passionate devotee of French culture, Kounen had me from the downbeat.

And, what a downbeat it was! The opening scene depicts the tension leading up to the 1913 world premiere of Diaghilev’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, set to music by Stravinsky, at Le Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. The unsuspecting audience, so accustomed to ballets like Swan Lake and others from the late-Romantic Russian repertoire, riots. The dancers and orchestra musicians are barely able to continue performing. The entire scene is wildly disruptive.

Interestingly, Coco Chanel is in the audience and she seems to be one of the few listeners who understands Stravinsky’s music. The complicated love story (and aren’t all French love stories complicated?) picks up again in 1920, once she and Stravinsky have each made names for themselves in Paris.

I was struck by the fact that Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky were immediately simpatico, perhaps because they were both innovators. He, a Russian composer then living in Paris, was writing music with uneasy, syncopated rhythms and disruptive harmonies new to the world’s ears. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel turned the women’s fashion world upside down, designing clothing that was not only chic, but thankfully, comfortably corset-less.

Mark Bernstein, CEO of the Palo Alto Research Center, defines innovation as “a valuable change, unconstrained by the way things are.” If his definition is accurate, then Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel should take their places at the top of a list of early 20th century innovators. Although we usually see the term “innovation” attributed to late 20th century corporations such as Procter & Gamble and Apple, let’s not forget some of the world’s earlier innovators who helped to change the way we think.

Which other early 20th century innovators would you add to this list?

My screening was private only by accident. Pity no one else showed up to enjoy this incredibly insightful film with me.

This post was originally published in August, 2010

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