Monday, March 2, 2009

Ballets Russes

Ballets Russes

The world of ballet was by no means insulated from this revolution of dance-makers. But in a world where dance is made within institutions-a company with a school attached-an innovative dance-maker has no choice but to come to terms with the tradi¬tion that the institution represents. The choreographers who figured prominently in the evolution of ballet in eighteenth ¬and nineteenth-century Europe-men like Jean Georges Noverre, Charles Louis Didelot, Auguste Bournonville, and Marius Petipa-were ballet masters of major companies. They did not have to reinvent dance from the ground up; their innovations rejected some prece¬dents from earlier times while building on others. This was the model envi¬sioned by Mikhail Fokine when, at the time of Isadora Duncan's visit to Russia, he sent an artistic manifesto to the director of the Imperial Theaters. Fokine believed that the great classical tradi¬tion that the Russians had inherited from the French and lovingly nurtured for much of the century-since 1869 under the leadership of Marius Petipa at St. Peterburg's Maryinsky Theater-had gone stale. Fokine revered Petipa but he wanted to let in fresh air. His approach to reform was both aesthetic and scien¬tific. In place of a loosely organized succession of "numbers," "entries," and so on, he called for a unified work of art whose performance would be unin¬terrupted even by pauses for leading dancers to acknowledge applause; in place of "mere gymnastics" and conven¬tional gestures, he called for expressive dancing that would make use of the whole body down to "the last muscle." And, through careful research into the time and place in which each ballet was set, he believed that all elements of a production-"music, painting, and the plastic arts"-could be harmoniously blended to express a single, underlying theme.

The director of the Maryinsky Theater ignored this manifesto but per¬mitted the precociously talented Fokine to dabble in choreography. Fokine had made his debut as a dancer in 1898 on his eighteenth birthday; at the age of twenty-two he was already teaching classical technique to the junior girls at the Imperial Ballet School. In the years following Duncan's visit, he pressed his campaign to reform the Russian ballet tradition. His first efforts to stage ballets with Greek themes and Duncanesque freedom of movement and costume ¬including bare feet and bare knees for the ballerinas - provoked opposition and he was forced to compromise: in one ballet the dancers appeared in tights with toes and knees painted on. The radical nature of his ideas can be appreciated from the comments of a ballet who, a few years later, danced barefoot, for the first time in a Fokine ballet: "This gave me a strange sensation of nakedness, like walking in public in a nightgown."

But gradually barriers fell. In 1906 a production he put together for students won praise from the recent retired Marius Petipa, whose own historical spectacles Fokine had criticized as "unauthentic." In 1908 he present two precedent-shattering works. In Une Nuit d'Egypte, an erotic divertissement featuring Anna Pavlova and himself in the major roles, dancers turned their profiles to the audience in the style of Egyptian tomb paintings, which shocked traditionalists accustomed to the predominantly frontal display of the classical canon; as the hero, Fokine danced with bare knees showing belt the border of his striped kilt; and the ballerinas bent and twisted their upper bodies in unconventional and provocative poses. For Chopiniana he adopter not only the serious music favored by Isadora Duncan but, according to some accounts, her fluid and expressive are movements as well. Another possible influence on Fokine's plastic use of the arms was the appearance in St. Petersburg of a troupe of Siamese court dancers in 1900. In 1905, he choreo¬graphed a brief solo for Anna Pavlova, called The Swan, in which her tremu¬lous arm movements represented the last futile efforts of a dying creature to regain the freedom of flight it had once known; when Pavlova began touring the world with her own company after 1910, this became her signature piece.

For all the excitement provoked by Fokine's innovations, it is by no means certain that he could have realized the full range of his ambitious reforms with¬in the tradition-bound Imperial Ballet. Serge Diaghilev gave him the opportu¬nity he had dreamed of. As tsarist Russia slipped further into financial and political chaos, Diaghilev received per¬mission to bring a troupe of Maryinsky principals to Paris in 1909, with Fokine as ballet master. Audiences in the West were astonished by the technical facility and expressive power of the Russian dancers, who included Pavlova and the nineteen-year-old Vaslav Nijinsky. The settings and costumes by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois blazed with color. And the ballets themselves, choreographed by Fokine, challenged preconceived ideas of classical dance.
Yet another of those photographs (left) that have become indissolubly linked with a dancer: Anna Pavlova as The Swan, a solo dance that Mikhail Fokine choreo¬graphed for her in 1905 to music by Camille Saint-Satins. Pavlova's tireless touring with her own company did much to stimulate worldwide enthusiasm for ballet. Like many modern dance-makers she had an interest in non-Western dance traditions. In London she met a young Indian art student named Uday Shankar; he helped her stage, and danced with her in, Radha-Krishna (1923) and other dances below). Shankar (1900-77) became a forceful popularizer of Indian dance in the West; in his later years he worked to reinvigorate traditional dance forms in India.

In Cleopatre, an adaptation of Une Nuit d'Egypte, the queen and her paramour made love on stage (discreetly hidden behind veils) while half-naked slaves and attendants cavorted orgiastically. Scheherazade featured an even wilder orgy and a merciless massacre onstage.
For three years, triumph followed triumph, confirming Fokine's dictum that choreographic style should change from ballet to ballet in accord with theme and music. The same audiences that thrilled to Fokine's acrobatic "Tar¬tar" dances set to music from Borodin's
opera Prince Igor were deeply moved by the abstract Romanticism of Les Sylphides, a revised version of Chopiniana, which emerged as the first entirely plotless ballet. In 1911 Fokine collaborated with Igor Stravinsky on Petrouchka, a Russian folk tale, with Nijinsky in the title role; this charac¬ter's jerky, mechanical movements and turned-in toes dramatized his helpless¬ness as a puppet of fate.

Fokine broke with Diaghilev in 1912, and although he later returned to the Ballets Russes, he never again equaled his innovative achievements during those first three Paris seasons. Diaghilev, whose financially shaky company need¬ed a steady supply of novelties to attract audiences, was neither a choreographer nor a dancer nor a composer nor an artist of any kind. Yet he had a hand in every aspect of the works his company produced. It was his idea to present three short ballets in a single evening, a format which has become standard for ballet companies around the world. He hired, and fired, and rehired the Stravinskys and Saties, the Fokines and Nijinskys, the Baksts and Benoises, the Picassos and Cocteaus whose talents merged in such exciting and often sur¬prising ways that the contributors fought bitterly for years over who deserved credit for which aspect of this or that ballet. All his ballet masters--Fokine, Nijinsky, Leonide Massine, Bronislawa Nijinska (Nijinsky's sister), and George Balanchine - were extraordinarily talented, and he rarely second-guessed them; but their average age when he took them on was under twenty-three. There was never any doubt about who was in charge. Ultimately, it was Diaghilev's taste that was reflected in the style and the content of the Ballets Russes; his unique company was his instrument of self-expression.

When Vaslav Nijinsky, the most acclaimed male dancer of his day, began creating innovative ballets for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1912, it looked for a time as if the young Nijinsky might achieve the choreo¬graphic goal that had eluded Fokine: to mold a first-class ballet company into a means of personal expression.

Nijinsky was born in Kiev in 1890 of Polish extraction. His parents headed their own touring dance company in Russia; from an early age he and his younger sister Bronislawa appeared on¬stage with their father, who was noted for his enormous leaps. At the age of ten, Nijinsky enrolled in the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, where his teachers recognized his natural tal¬ent almost immediately. On graduation in 1907 he danced a succession of im¬portant roles in such ballets as Giselle, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.

His dancing offered a rare mix of strength and facility. Propelled by pow¬erfully muscled thighs, his leaps were legendary not only for their height but for the impression he gave of pausing in midair at the top of the arc. In the words of critic Edwin Denby: "When he moves he does not blur the center of weight in his body; one feels it as clearly as if he were still standing at rest, one can fol¬low its course clearly as it floats about the stage through the dance." He pro¬jected a vitality, a sensuality, that some saw as innocent, others as erotic.

Among his admirers was Serge Diaghilev, who sensed that a great ballet company could be built around this young dancer who combined a rig¬orous schooling in classical technique with an almost palpable emotional intensity.

The roles that Fokine choreographed for Nijinsky in the first three seasons
of the Ballets Russes allowed the dancer to display the full range of his powers to wildly appreciative audiences in Paris and London. As the Poet in Les Sylphides he embodied an abstract Romanticism seen through the lens of nostalgia; as the Favorite Slave in Scheherazade he was the devotee of sexu¬ality for whom even death is a kind of orgasm; in Le Spectre de la Rose his leap¬ing exit from the stage had the sensa¬tional finality of a record-setting broad jump; in Petrouchka he was poignancy itself. There was, it seemed, nothing he could not do, no role he could not bring to life onstage. He always had trouble communicating in words, but when he danced, he spoke with his entire body. Is it any wonder that, prompted by Diaghilev, he decided to take the next step and try his hand at making dances?

Having mastered technique as few dancers before or since, Nijinsky apparently had no interest in devising ever-more-challenging exercises in the traditional mode. Instead, he took up where Fokine had left off-seeking to express something of himself through the artistic medium of a classically trained ballet company.

In L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune (After¬noon of a Faun), the subject was sex¬ - adolescent sex. As the Faun, Nijinsky (adorned with a small tail, golden horns, and pointed ears) tried to entice some passing nymphs into joining him for a frolic. Intrigued, frightened, they dallied, then fled. One dropped her scarf. Like an animal playing with its prey, the Faun retrieved the scarf, draped it over a rock, and, throwing his head back in a soundless laugh, pressed out his longing against the smooth fab¬ric. Those in the audience who were not shocked by this explicit mime of masturbation were outraged by the anti¬classical movements that Nijinsky had devised for himself and the nymphs. The dancers moved back and forth across the stage like cutouts from a Greek frieze. Ballerinas who had spent years perfecting their turnout found it difficult to keep their feet parallel. Debussy's dreamlike music was no help in keeping time, as one dancer recalled: "[We] walked and moved quite gently to a rhythm that crossed over the beats giv¬en by the conductor. At every entrance one made-and there were several¬ - one began to count, taking the count from another dancer who was coming off. For every lift of the hand or head there was a corresponding sound in the score."

Although Diaghilev toned down the ending at the insistence of the Paris police, he relished the outcry that the piece provoked; controversy generated publicity and sold tickets. For Nijinsky, the critical attacks hit closer to home: "The Faun," he said simply, "is me."

It had taken the young choreographer 120 rehearsals to prepare this twelve ¬minute ballet for its premiere. A year later, in May 1913, he presented two new ballets that set off an even greater furor. Today, the better known is Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) because of its propulsive score by Igor Stravinsky. It was Stravinsky's idea to create a ball& around a savage ritual from pre-Christian Russia, in which an adolescent girl dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the god of spring. Diaghilev turned to Nijinsky as chore¬ographer only after Fokine, his original choice, had backed out over a monetary dispute.

To help Nijinsky set steps to the com¬plex rhythmic structure of the music, Diaghilev brought in an expert in eurhythmics, a method of matching body movements to musical rhythms invented by a Swiss music teacher, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1.865-1950). The result was more "counting," as in Faun; but because there were many more dancers doing many more things onstage for a much longer time, the counts were much, much more complicated. Nijinsky did not dance in Sacre. On opening night he stood in the wings stamping his foot and counting out loud for the benefit of the dancers. But no one could hear him above the din of the orchestra and the disapproving shouts end whistles from the audience that began even before the curtain went up. A near-riot ensued. It was hard to tell which the protesters disliked more: Stravinsky's pounding, discordant music or Nijinsky's frenetic, knock-kneed choreography. Among the words that critics used to describe the ballet: "harsh," “raw," "bitter," "brutal," "undigested," `coarse," "frank."

As a succes de scandale, Sacre had to equal: It was the avant-garde event of the season, the decade, some might say the century. Within twenty years Stravinsky's music had entered the con¬vert repertoire; its discordances and -rhythmic innovations had become part of the musical language of its time. But the ballet itself received only six perfor¬mances, and Nijinsky's choreography has been preserved only in the uncer¬¬¬tain memories of those who were there. Attempts to restage the original work lave met with no definitive agreement )n whether the reconstructions rep¬resent was the original audience saw on opening night.

The other ballet that Nijinsky choreo¬graphed that spring, Jeux (Games), is almost entirely forgotten except by his¬torians of dance. But in its own way, Jeux (set to a specially commissioned score by Debussy) was as radical as Sacre, and marked an important mile¬stone in the evolution of ballet as an instrument of personal, rather than col¬laborative, creation. For perhaps the first time in the history of classical ballet the dancers portrayed characters who seemed to live in the same world as the spectators. The theme was sport-a game of tennis-but the subtext was sexual play, a three-way flirtation between Nijinsky and two female part¬ners. All three dancers wore sports clothes only slightly modified from out¬fits that anyone in the audience might have worn the previous weekend. As in Faun the movements were angular, stilt¬ed; at times the principals looked more like silent-movie actors than dancers.

To dancers trained in classical tech¬nique, the poses and attitudes that Nijinsky specified (to be executed on three-quarter point) were punishing: "I had to keep my head screwed on one side, both hands curled in as in one maimed from birth," said one ballerina. In his diary the choreographer was explicit about the source of his inspira¬tion: Diaghilev had been eager to have a young boy share their bed, an idea that Nijinsky rejected. Audiences were more puzzled than aroused by the encoded menage a srois they saw onstage, but Nijinsky's artistic courage could not be faulted; in the words of Lincoln Kirstein: "Few dancers before had translated pri¬vate tension into public parable."

But Nijinsky was unable to follow up on this breakthrough. In August 1913 the Ballets Russes company sailed from Southampton, England, for a tour of South America that Diaghilev, always hard-pressed for cash, had arranged even though he was so terrified of sea voyages that he could not bring himself to go. (He had been told by a fortune-teller that death would find him at sea.) To many in the company, it was startling to see Nijinsky without Diaghilev at his side. What followed was a progression of tragicomic events that played like a darker sequel to Jeux. On the voyage Nijinsky spent all his time with Romola de Pulszka, the daughter of a famous and wealthy Hungarian actress, who had recently joined the corps de ballet. Shortly after their arrival in Rio, Nijinsky and Romola announced their engagement; they were married on September 10, 1913. When the news reached Paris, Diaghilev was furious. Seizing on the pretext that Nijinsky had breached his contract by refusing so dance one night in Rio, Diaghilev fired his rebellious protege and appointed as ballet master in his place the seventeen¬-year-old Leonide Massine.

After the First World War began, Nijinsky was interned in Hungary as a Russian subject, only to be freed in 1916 by the string-pulling efforts of Diaghilev, who had secured a lucrative engagement for his company at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on the condition that Nijinsky dance. Although Nijinsky himself was already beginning to show signs of mental dete¬rioration, the Metropolitan engagement in the spring of 1916 created a stir, and a second New York season was arranged for the fall of the same year, this time with Nijinsky en full charge of the company. For a man who had trouble managing his own life, this was an impossible assignment. In addition, his contract stipulated that he produce two new ballets en three weeks for New York premieres. Only one was produced, a mimed narrative version of the German folk tale Till Eulenspiegel, set to Richard Strauss's tone poem. On opening night the second act was en such a raw state that the dancers had to improvise most of their steps.

After that, Nijinsky's mental decline was obvious to everyone. His last public appearance as a dancer was en Septem¬ber 1917. Over the next two years he planned a ballet to be set to the music of Bach and worked on an elaborate system of dance notation that he had invented. From 1919, when his condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia, until his death en 1950 he lived for the most part en a series of European asylums. After his departure from the scene, et became the fashion to denigrate his achieve¬ments as a choreographer, following the lead of Stravinsky and Fokine who claimed credit for most of Nijinsky's innovations. But other collaborators have testified to his hard work, high standards, and almost oppressive drive en bringing a dance to the stage. just before his final mental breakdown he confided to a colleague: "I wish to work independently of other troupes of dancers en which intrigue prevents the creation of real art. I am planning to dance alone with a small company and achieve some interesting results."

As dreams go, this seems modest enough. For dancers who eschewed bal¬let and followed the path blazed by Duncan and St. Denis, et would soon become the norm. But for Nijinsky et was a fantasy bred of madness. Even the greatest ballet masters had not enjoyed anything approaching artistic autono¬my. During his four decades at the helm of the Imperial Ballet en St. Petersburg, Marius Petipa well understood the limi¬tations within which he worked: an easily bored audience that demanded spectacles spited with divertissements, court politics that often dictated which juicy parts went to certain favorites, and a prohibition (handed down from the sovereign himself) against unhappy end¬ings that might suggest all was not well en the empire.

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