ON AVANT-GARDE DANCE AND SOCIETAL CONCEPTS IN THE BALLETS RUSSES
By Nicole Haitzinger
In the 20th Century, under the aegis of Serge Diaghilev the Ballets Russes and their staging (1909-1929) turned into a myth. Hardly any other dance company has been (re-)presented in publications, exhibitions, and reconstructions like the Ballets Russes. The fascination with their oeuvre seems unbroken. Still, the hybrid and multifaceted staging of the Ballets Russes eludes definite classifications. As a collective the Ballets Russes are rarely counted among the historical avant-garde. However, in recent times a shift can be observed. The major exhibition La Danza delle Avanguardie took place at the Museo di Arte Moderna in Rovereto, Italy, (December 17, 2005 to May 7, 2006) and was documented in a detailed catalogue. In its curatorial concept it attempts to establish an avant-garde of dance of the 20th Century[i]. The project co-operation which includes a major part of the best-known Ballets Russes archives – Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Tretjakow Gallery in Moscow, the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, and Dansmuseet Stockholm – allocates almost all Ballets Russes productions to “the” avant-garde of dance, albeit without any closer definition.[ii]
In the context of early Russian theatre culture in the 20th century, the Ballet Russes productions probably are the most typical – i.e., the most artistic ones which knew how to show and market various cultural trends (traditions, Russian modernism and western influences) in their ensemble. The focus on synergetic staging concepts and corporeality collides with clear classifications and concepts (like symbolism, futurism, constructivism).[iii]
A constant which until now has been often neglected was part of the Ballets Russes' highly productive artistic fluctuation: the chorographical experiments and innovations within the productions of the Ballets Russes – consistently more international with time – were created exclusively by Russian choreographers like Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, Balanchine.[iv] Here the question arises whether it could have been exactly this encounter of radical theatre and movement reform concepts[v] around 1900, choreographical innovations and concepts from their own dance-theatrical and performative past which make some of the Ballet Russes' stagings appear avant-gardistic today. In the following, I will try to give a short outline of avant-garde as well as of traditional elements on the basis of selected productions – Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), L'Aprés-Midi d'un Faune (1912), Parade (1917), Les Noces (1923), and Apollon Musagète (1928).[vi]
In Le Spectre de la Rose[vii] Michel Fokine designs a remarkable pair-choreography for the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina. An effeminate male dancer impersonates the spirit of the rose. In the staging he represents the romanticised ideal, female desire. The dancer's appearance is legendary due to the costume and make-up by Léon Bakst: the tight pink costume with a headdress made of rose petals as well as the facial make-up turn the dancer's body into an androgynous body which moves between the male and the female.
Vaclav Nijinsky corner with the original costumes of Le Spectre de la Rose at Waganowa Ballet Academy, Saint Petersburg, 2008. © Anja Manfredi
From a choreographic and a dance-technical point of view the idea of the “third”, the mouldable, the androgynous body corresponds with the permanent shifts in direction as well as with the combination of virtuosic jumping technique in accentuation of the upper body's expressional quality. Paradoxically, Le Spectre de la Rose re-establishes the male dancer by forcing gender-related attributions to a collapse through movement technique, choreographical and scenographical procedures.
New choreographic designs also appear in the dance of the female: Karsavina dances with her eyes closed. This element can be interpreted as a dance-theatrical provocation since until then eye contact with the audience and the frontal orientation of dance were considered to be irrevocable rules. Fokine's choreography of this dance as a dream / in a dream shows that classical technique is widely adaptable. He exploits ballet traditions, remoulds the old canon, and modifies the ballet vocabulary. Still, the representation remains imitational: Nijinsky shows the rose as an imagination of the female figure's inner view which is projected outwards. The fourth wall remains. What can be regarded as avant-garde about Spectre is the principle of transgression of norms on several levels: desire versus social etiquette, gender ambiguity through remoulding of dance technique and costume, internal view versus superficial representation. The preservation of systems of reference remains traditional: romance, ballet traditions, and imitation …
In L'Aprés-Midi d'un Faune (1912), Nijinsky not only appears as a dancer but for the first time also as a choreographer.[viii] In comparison with Le Spectre de la Rose, Faun refrains from virtuosity on all levels. Even the beginning of the play – the faun sits in a pose, the staging does not begin with movement – shows its performative quality and the radical breaking with traditions. Similar to Le Spectre de la Rose, Bakst in his role of costume designer exhibits the male body. The animalistic is highlighted in the Faun's character; the antique-like nymphs with their dresses referring to Greek antiquity create the contrast.
However, Nijinsky does not perform the faun. He identifies with the role and through this establishes an as-if concept within dance by making the faun-self appear within the transmission of the movement. Selection, fragmentation, and succession within the findings of movement document the analytical approach.[ix] The parallelism of the legs as well as the emphasis on the expressive quality of the arm movements refer to a new mimetic concept of dance which provides for an openness in interpretation. Nijinsky creates a new, abstract movement repertory and establishes the gyration of the upper body to the front while steps and line of vision move away from the platform. The spatial concept favours surface and lack of perspective. On account of the choreographed movement from one side of the stage to the other – the transfer of the concept of antique reliefs – the impression of stage depth is extremely reduced. Three-dimensionality can be retrieved exclusively in the construction of the body, of the corporeal. Actual physiological and coordinative processes connect with pictographic (poses, pauses) and scenographical elements.
Due to numerous factors, the faun can be assessed as one of the Ballets Russes' avant-garde stagings: an erotic scandal due to the fetish (veil) and hinted masturbation on stage, the employment of movement as material, diverging concepts of space and body which oscillate during reception, the dynamic relationship between image and movement …
Parade[x] introduces a new modernist phase in the Ballets Russes in which topics and motives of western European culture are picked up. The artists around Serge Diaghilev begin to open themselves to the western cultural industry, to the new arts (film, photography), to the profane and the popular. Especially Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso were interested in showing the “brash, the vulgar and the vital” side of modern life. In Parade cultural signs and codes of the modern world are summarised and demonstrated. The production is characterised by a two-part dramaturgical collage structure: the situational setting is a street in Paris on a Sunday. During three separate performances three music hall artists in front of their show booths perform short stunts which are supposed to lure the audience into their shows. Their “managers” – huge human-object constructions – announce each of them with a number. After twenty minutes, “Parade” ends in a finale in which all characters appear on stage.
Reconstruction of Picasso's Manager from the Derra de Moroda Dance Archives; object at the exhibition Schwäne und Feuervögel, Russische Bildwelten in Bewegung, Die Ballets Russes 1909–1929, Deutsches Theatermuseum Munich. © Anja Manfredi
Picasso's oversized managers who were supposed to march over the stage as animated signposts posed a challenge to the young Massine: Their movement style was reduced to stomping and slow, square movements. According to Cocteau, the transformation of “real” – hence popular – gestures and everyday movements into stage dance presents the greatest challenge for contemporary ballet. However, from a historiographical perspective Léonide Massine's short choreographies for the Chinese Magician, the American Girl and the Acrobat do not present any new determinations of movement or avant-garde dance concepts. The three stunts are mediated via a choreographic structure which exclusively resorts to traditional phrase vocabulary (pantomimic gesture, classical pas de deux …). In return, priority is given to the image-like manifestations of the figures borrowed from Character Theatre, silent movies, the music hall, and classical ballet.
During a later phase of the Ballets Russes, in Les Noces[xi], Russian energies (music: Stravinsky, choreography: Nijinska, scenography: Gontcharova) once again undergo concentration, and Nijinsky's ideas on movement are developed further. Already in 1910, Bronislava Nijinska together with her brother Vaslav had worked on the preliminary studies for his first choreography, L'Aprés-Midi d'un Faune. She could be seen as a dancer in several productions of the Ballets Russes. After a longer stay in Russia, several dance contracts for the Ballets Russes production Sleeping Beauty (1921) and the scripting of On Movement and the School of Movement she was finally engaged by Diaghilev for Les Noces. In Les Noces Nijinska abstracts the wedding theme, which is shown in its social dimension as an arrangement between two groups. Here, Constructivism appears in the form of a dance staging. Expressive elements of Russian folklore are revisited, abstracted, and put into new order. Natalia Gontcharova designs the consistent costumes and décor. Nijinska develops the spectrum of a wedding and constructs action situations. The braiding of hair can be defined as the main choreographical theme. It is the leitmotiv, which appears in form of signalling gestures, poses, movements, and group formations.
“The braiding ends in the well-known pyramids in which the girls' heads are aligned as to represent a braid. […] Postures and movements are equally conventional, not codified in their energetic charging, in their aesthetic configuration as well as in their functional construction, and they defy the separation between male and female step material. The expressiveness of the movements is located in the outlandish cross-linking of energy, function, and architectonics.”[xii]
Like her brother, Nijinska turns movement itself into material – “Movement is the principle of dance” – however, contrary to Nijinsky, the body is presented as a “two-dimensional construction oriented after the classical codex”[xiii]. The unique connection between energy, function, and architectonics refers to a design concept, which is related to Constructivism in the fine arts. The visualisation of a wedding's social function which thematically as well as structurally annihilates the individual and which concentrates on the formation of groups and mechanisms of isolation can certainly be interpreted as a feminist and socio-critical position. The avant-garde part of Nijinska is not so much located in a visionary determination of movement but rather in her radical reduction and realignment of movement as a dance-theatrical measure.
George Balanchine, the last important Russian choreographer of Ballets Russes during Diaghilev's era, and later legendary founder of the American Ballet, choreographed a danced pictorial manifesto with Apollon Musagète[xiv] (1928).
The mythological plot is quickly told: Apollo comes to life and dialogues with the three muses. As opposed to Nijinsky or Nijinska, Balanchine consciously falls back onto the formulary canon of classical ballet traditions, the danse d'école of the 19th century. Just like Nijinsky he forms sculptural bodies in space, but he is using different tools. His system of reference is also antiquity; however, it is not archaic as is the case with Faun, but rather the classical, Apollinic one with a strict formulary canon with regard to geometry, space, and the application of the body. Balanchine stages the mentioned antiquity through stereotyped and codified gestures and movements. In their movement-technical and choreographical processing, theme and vocabulary open up a new dimension. The detailed analysis of structures of dance and movement, lucidity through reduction, concentrations within the play of forms, the principles of collage and montage in dance are elements which pre-empt the 20th century. The favouring of the show character and the exhibition of dancing virtuosity are to be interpreted as traditional elements.
Differing priorisations can be recognised when trying to establish the avant-garde within these Ballets Russes productions under the double perspective of avant-garde dance and society models: Spectre mirrors Fokine's concept of reform. Traditional dance technique is his system of reference. However, he remodels its academic formulas/phrases/codes. In Spectre, the body, which changes between the sexes, presents itself as a visionary idea. However, it remains positionable as a theatrical dream figure. In Faun, Nijinsky not only invents a new repertory of movement and a dynamic relationship between body and space within dance. He also shows new individualised relationship constellations through the radicalisation of movement, body and staging concepts. Massine is the choreographer of a modernist, interdisciplinary production in which mobile structures of dance step behind the imagination of his pop cultural manifestations. Social mechanisms are exhibited; the personal disappears on behalf of stylisation. In Nijinska's choreography the Constructivist design of movement and body as defined in theatrical functionality serve as an illustration as well as an implicit critique of social mechanisms. This can be regarded as an essential aspect. Finally, Balanchine forms and sculptures highly aestheticised bodies “as machines who think” and shows us in a virtuoso and spectacular manner one of the possible image programs of a dehumanised world.
[i] Gabriella Belli (ed.), La Danza delle Avanguardie, exhibition catalogue, Milano: Skira, 2005.
[ii] Cultural transfers and touring, popularisation and commercialisation of the arts are not factors, which were meaningful exclusively to Serge Diaghilev. They are also reflected in the present exhibition fever on the occasion of the centennial of the first Saison Russe. The difference being that today objects without bodies are transferred and turned nomadic …
[iii] On this point and the aesthetically effective dimensions of Ballets Russes stagings, cf. Nicole Haitzinger, “Russische Bildwelten in Bewegung”, in: Schwäne und Feuervögel, Die Ballets Russes 1909-1929. Russische Bildwelten in Bewegung, Deutsches Theatermuseum Munich (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 2009.
[iv] Unpublished concept by Claudia Jeschke and Nicole Haitzinger for the exhibition Russische Bildwelten in Bewegung (Theatermuseum Munich and Vienna, 2009).
[v] The question of the relationship between mimesis and imitatio in dance around 1900 is an aspect which still awaits differentiation.
[vi] The following performances are based on the contents and findings of the seminar The Ballets Russes. Traditional and Avantgarde Trends in Dance 1900-1930 by Claudia Jeschke and Nicole Haitzinger which took place during the summer term 07 in Graz (musicology).
[vii] Premiered on April 19, 1911 in Monte Carlo with Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, Spectre de la Rose was choreographed by Michel Fokine. With a duration of just about 11 minutes it is considered to be one of the shortest ballets in the history of dance. Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, French writer and critic, wrote the one-act libretto inspired by a poem by Théophile Gautier. Aufforderung zum Tanz (1819), a piano piece by Carl Maria von Weber orchestrated by Hector Berlioz, was directed by Nicholas Tcherepnine; costumes by Léon Bakst.
[viii] One-act ballet by Vaslav Nijinsky after a poem by Stephane Mallarmé. Debut performance on May 29, 1912 at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Composition: Claude Debussy, costumes and stage setting by Léon Bakst.
[ix] Cf.: Claudia Jeschke, Choreographic Approaches to Stravinsky: Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska, unpublished lecture held at the symposium Movimento and Volumina (April 27 – May 1, 2007), Salzburg. P. 6.
[x] The debut performance of Parade took place on May 18, 1917 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It is a collective staging by Jean Cocteau (libretto), Pablo Picasso (costumes and stage setting), Léonide Massine (choreography) and Erik Satie (composition). Also cf.: Nicole Haitzinger, Parade der Friktionen – choreographic concepts in the cooperation of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Léonide Massine. http://www.corpusweb.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=721&Itemid=35
[xi] The idea for Les Noces and the arrangement of the choreographic scenes go back to the composer Igor Stravinsky. The production's debut performance took place on June 13, 1923 at the Théâtre de la Gaîte-Lyrique. It was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, costumes and stage setting were created by Natalia Gontcharova.
[xii] Cf.: Claudia Jeschke, Choreographic Approaches to Stravinsky: Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska, unpublished lecture held during the symposium Movimento and Volumina (April 27 – May 1, 2007), Salzburg. P. 9.
[xiv] Ballet in two scenes, debut performance on June 12, 1928 at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt. Composition: Igor Stravinsky, choreography: George Balanchine, costumes: André Bauchant.
Suggestion: The exhibition „Schwäne und Feuervögel. Les Ballets Russes 1909 - 1929“, curated by Claudia Jeschke and Nicole Haitzinger, can be seen until September 27, 2009, in Österreichisches Theatermuseum , Vienna.
(Aug. 18, 2009)