Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Choreography creates chaos


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The Rite of Spring will have its 100th anniversary as a dance(d) work on May 29. It's best known now as "Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps )," with performances of it in the concert hall commonplace – against all odds, given its difficulty as music – and its appearances on the ballet stage comparatively few. At its stormy Paris premiere, it would at least equally have been considered Vaslav Nijinsky's, or Serge Diaghilev's.

A century later the dispute still rages over whether it was Stravinsky's score or Nijinsky's choreography – or both – that caused the riot in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees (that may or may not have been carefully calculated by Diaghelev, director of the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky's main patron and lover at the time). The long subsequent life of the music and the shorter one of the dance point to the latter, though the matter may never be settled.

One of the best-known accounts of the riot is by Count Harry Kessler, a gay aristocrat who was an integral member of the international art scene – and not just as a hanger-on – for a half-century. Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler 1880-1918 (Knopf), recently reissued in paperback, is essential (and transfixing) reading for anyone interested in the arts in the 20th century.

Kessler, who appeared at the end of the rehearsal the night before the premiere to find himself in the company not only of the creators but also of the likes of Andre Gide and Maurice Ravel, ends his entry of May 28 with, "The common opinion was that tomorrow evening the premiere would be a scandal." His entry for May 29, at the end of which he finds himself in a taxi at 3 a.m. with Diaghilev, Nijinsky, designer Leonard Bakst, and Jean Cocteau, after vividly recounting the riot in the theater (the police were called), came to a shrewd judgment: "A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos."

In the audience, Debussy, known to have strongly disliked Nijinsky's choreography for his Diaghilev-commissioned Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un faune and Jeux, in Kessler's account shouted, "What a bunch of imbeciles," presumably to those outraged audience members whose racket threatened to drown out the music. But it's fairly clear that it was the ritualistic, Earth-stomping choreography by Nijinsky – who further incensed the crowd by not performing in the piece – that most incensed a ballet audience that had sat contentedly, pre-intermission, through Les Sylphides.

A scholarly attempt, by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, to reconstruct the unnotated choreography from other historical evidence, which the Joffrey Ballet performed in 1987 (including at Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium), hinted at the work's primitivism. It failed for being unconscionably boring, controversial only to other scholars.

Because the only images of Nijinsky's dancing and choreography are stills, his artistic cadaver has been ripe for the pickings ever since his departure from the stage, after seven years of dancing, and his death, incurably insane, 30 years later. The centenary of Rite is sure to increase the chatter. Writing about more attempted reconstructions, dance critic Joan Acocella observed, "Before [with Rite ], you could say they were doing their best. But 'Nijinsky's Last Dance?' This is starting to look like a racket."

Unless you're a scholar of dance or queer culture, everything you want to know about Nijinsky is in Richard Buckle's still-unsurpassed (and compulsively readable) biography, Nijinsky's Diaries edited by Acocella, and Acocella's easily-Googled articles. The evidence is that Nijinsky's first and primary sexual interest was in women, that he fully partnered with men sexually, that he probably had his first sexual experience (and possibly the great love of his pre-mad life) with Prince Pavel Lvov, a ballet patron who acquired Nijinsky but also cared about the young and not-yet-famous (but much sought-after) dancer and bountifully provided for him both materially and emotionally. Seeing a road to fame for Nijinsky, Lvov passed him on as a lover to Diaghilev, about whom Nijinsky seems to have been far more ambivalent, but who did make him the most famous dancer in the world.

In a move that proved shattering for both Nijinsky and Diaghilev, on an international tour of The Rite in the summer after its Paris premiere, which a busy Diaghilev did not accompany, Nijinsky abruptly married Romola de Pulszky, who remained his wife for the remainder of his life, but who took only women lovers after Nijinsky.

The great dancer was, in many senses of the expression, regularly put on the couch before and after his descent into madness. Puzzling out his sexuality and seeming androgyny has become a sometimes disturbing sub-industry of its own. Being treated like chattel as a beautiful young man may seem shocking (though Nijinsky took to the wealth and luxury as to the manner born), but the practice was a widespread and well-known part of Russian dance culture (and remains so today).

The latest exploitation of Nijinsky and his mystique is a tawdry new biography, Nijinsky: A Life (Profile Books) by Lucy Moore. It's the worst kind of speculative biography, adding little to what is known, skating across the standard controversies, minimizing discussions of the dances themselves, and – its main aim – proposing a psychosexual interpretation of Nijinsky's personal sexual development as manifested in his dances – itself not a new idea, and less interestingly handled here.

The language is less psychobiography than fanzine, as Moore imagines the great moments of Vaslav, as she compulsively calls him, in confabulated detail. If there's a source for her statement that, backstage at the premiere of Rite, "Beneath his arms, the thin silk of his shirt was already wet through," it doesn't make one of the endnotes that comprise more than a third of the book. It's a sweaty affair.

So, although Nijinsky is still for sale or trade 100 years on, more substantive celebrations this year may shed more light on Nijinsky's Rite. It's worth investigating .

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