The centenary of a sacred scandal: Nijinsky, a genius dance maker

When people mention Le sacre du printemps’ scandalous premiere, they often just remark Stravinsky’s revolutionary score. However, according to many historians, the authentic cause of the extraordinary reaction to the work was prompted by Nijinsky’s equally groundbreaking choreography.

There are many facts that support this notion. First, the booing and the hissing propelled by the audience became so loud that the music could not be heard. Second, when the music was played the next year at a concert, the reaction was celebratory. And finally, Nicholas Roerich’s unprecedented costumes definitely added to the outrageous sense of innovation Les Ballet Russes were able to present. In result, all of these factors lead up to thinking that Nijinsky’s contribution cannot be underestimated.

Le sacre du printemps was a difficult score. Stravinsky himself struggled for decades to translate the musical ideas inside his head into a proper score. Everyone involved in the production was very aware of that from the beginning. And nobody was more conscious in that regard than Sergei Diaghilev. He was afraid the music was too complicated for Nijinsky to choreograph, so he looked for help. Diaghilev took the choreographer to Hellerau (Germany) to visit the Dalcroze Academy.

Diaghilev hoped to get some assistance from Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, the founder of the academy and creator of the Dalcroze Technique, but he refused. Instead, he recruited Marie Rambert, one of Dalcroze’s pupils, to help Nijinsky with his daunting task.

Rambert and Nijinsky got along very well. She also considered very intimidated the task of matching Stravinsky’s complicated score with dance. She was particularly astounded by the piece’s complex rhythmic changes. Nijinsky had decided to embark on his task with a primitive yet modern approach, and Rambert certainly respected it.

The physicality of the Dalcroze Technique was materialized in some of the outstanding poses and movements Nijinsky created for the ballet. Some of them even challenged the mere notion of what the human body was supposed to do in a natural way -the feet and the knees of the dancers, at moments, were turned-in, presumably to give the idea of an ancient ritual.

According to many dancers of Les Ballets Russes, Nijinsky wasn’t easy to work with. His otherworldly nature was perhaps a consequence of his fanatical devotion to art. Many consider Nijinsky to be the first to choreograph with such attention to detail, literally in a step-by-step way. The strange movements he had in mind for this ballet did not exactly help to establish a healthy collaboration with his dancers. The latter were dazed at the type of steps they had to perform. Le sacre du printemps was difficult even in the phases of its gestation.

The testimony of Maria Piltz is very useful to understand the level of difficulty present in Nijinsky’s choreography. Piltz danced the main role in the ballet -the Chosen Virgin. When she started to follow Nijinsky’s instructions she realized she had never danced like this before. In the end she managed to impress the audience with her performance, but Ramberg was rather disappointed. She felt Piltz had made a weak version of Nijinsky’s original instructions.

Nijinsky’s greatest achievement was to make, out of Stravinsky’s monumental piece of music, another masterpiece that consisted of a redefinition of the physical expression for the stage. The unparalleled poses he created and the proficient handling of the corps de ballet also made history. This choreography was only performed a few times by Les Ballets Russes and it was thought lost for decades. Fortunately, the dance experts Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer conducted a research for 16 years and reconstructed Nijinsky's original choreography. (The Joffrey Ballet performed it in 1987.)

Jacques Rivière wrote one of the best reviews of Le sacre du printemps, in terms of summing up succinctly Nijinsky’s historic accomplishment: “By breaking up movement, by returning to the simplicity of gesture, Nijinsky has restored expressiveness to dancing. All the angularities and awkwardness of this choreography keep the feeling in. The body is no longer an escape-route for the soul: on the contrary, it gathers itself together to contain the soul. Nijinsky makes the body itself speak. It only moves as a whole, as one block, and its speech is expressed in sudden bounds with open arms and legs, or in sideways runs with bent knees and with the head lying on one shoulder.

“The language of Nijinsky is infinitely detailed. This is a biological ballet. It is not only the dance of the most primitive of men, it is the dance before man. Stravinsky tells us that he wanted to portray the surge of spring. But this is not the usual spring sung by poets, with its breezes, its birdsong, its pale skies, and tender greens. Here is nothing but the harsh struggle of growth, the panic terror from the rising of the sap, the fearful regrouping of the cells. Spring seen from inside, with its violence, its spasms and its fissions. We seem to be watching a drama through a microscope.”

Nijinsky’s choreography received several negative reviews. Even when Stravinsky had once affirmed that he was “too ignorant musically to be fit to do choreography”, he came out in his defense by saying “Nijinsky is a remarkable artist, capable of giving new life to the whole art of ballet. Not for a second have we ceased to think along the same lines. You’ll see later what he will do. He is not only a marvelous dancer: he is capable of creation and innovation. He has played a vital part in the collaboration of Le sacre du printemps.”

Nijinsky’s marvelous contribution to the breakthrough of Le sacre du printemps is undeniable. For many decades, though, Stravinsky’s score took the lead in appreciation and prestige. However, true masterpieces sooner or later get the respect they deserve. It has taken many years for Nijinsky’s choreography to be properly understood and acknowledged. Now that history has finally done it, there’s really no turning back.


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