Ballets Russes

Vaslav Nijinsky On the evening of May 29, 1913 the Parisian upper class gathered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees for the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rites of Spring) performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The anticipation was sparked by “advance publicity which talked of ‘real art’ and ‘true art’ and art not confined by space and time.” Seat prices had been doubled (Eksteins 10). The ballet had been rehearsed 120 times because of its complexity, and required great precision in execution. The score was composed by Igor Stravinsky, who had produced the enormously successful Firebird and Petrushka in the 1910 and 1911 seasons. The choreography was created by the notorious ballet legend, Vaslav Nijinsky, who had been called “the god of dance” by the Parisian press for his unforgettable performances in the previous five seasons. The scenery and costumes were designed by the Russian anthropologist and painter Nicholas Roerich; the music was conducted by the French conductor Pierre Monteux. As the orchestra began to play the rhythmically challenging score and the ensembles of dancers began to move on stage in a manner never seen before, a riot broke out in the audience; the police had to be called to restore order and to prevent the outraged public from causing any serious damage to the theatre and to each other. The events of that night forever changed the history of ballet and left a lasting impression on the history of twentieth-century European culture.

Firebird - Tamara Karsavina   Rites of Spring   Nijinsky in Scheherazade

The violent reaction of the audience was of equal importance to the lasting significance of the performance as a pivotal event in modern culture. The French poet and playwright, and a loyal supporter of Diaghilev’s ballet, Jean Cocteau, pointed out that “the audience had played the part that was written for it” (Cocteau 19). It was precisely because of the audience’s strong reaction that the ballet and the creative powers behind it became so famous. With Le Sacre, the Ballets Russes no longer presented the audience with a fantasy and an entertaining way to escape reality; instead they showed the very psychological abyss the public longed to escape. The ballet’s threat to the values of Western civilization made the distinguished members of the audience behave in a violent manner. They became more savage than the dancers on stage portraying primitive Slavs in communal rituals and violent dances.

Prince Igor   Firebird 1910   Lydia Lopokova

The dichotomy of the two raging groups, the performers and the spectators, transformed the event into a psychological spasm. The performance appeared shocking because, perhaps for the first time, publicly, and on a large scale, modern civilization faced the images of its own antithesis, and even when understood only intuitively, it was a terrifying and painful image. Nijinsky’s choreography was seen as a revolt against grace, against the tradition of classical ballet, against the beauty of movement and the beauty of art. The history of modernism was marked by revolts against institutions, academies, traditions and customs, narratives, perspectives, and social conventions. However, rebellion is not the sole factor of modernism, and as suggested by the postmodernist theorist, Jürgen Habermas, to claim something is modern because it breaks with the established norms of the past is to use the concept not historically but categorically (Habermas 4). With Le Sacre du Printemps a group of modernist artists, musicians, choreographers, and dancers created a defining event and experience in the history of modernism, modern art, and European culture. This article examines the ways in which this key event came about.

Anna Pavlova   Scheherazade   Petrushka

Drawing connections to ancient Greece while portraying a romanticized and foreign ancient Russia, Le Sacre was modern in its symbolic meaning and movements, which was a radical break with balletic traditions. The history of ballet can be traced back to ancient Greek festivals and religious rituals, particularly, the rites of Dionysus that were marked by celebrations and wild dancing, when many of the worshippers would break into frenzy or a trance-like state. One theory of the origins of the festivals is suggested by Ritchie Robertson in his essay on primitivism and psychology:

Acutely aware of the pain, horror and transience of life, the Greeks created the ideal world of Olympus as a compensation. But the strain of believing in this beautiful and harmonious ideal was so great that they had to seek relief, and hence they were attracted by the savage, orgiastic cult of Dionysus which they found among the nations further east. The festivals of Dionysus freed people temporarily from the burdens of civilization and even of individuality, and allowed them to release their pent-up impulses with the aid of music and dancing (Robertson 81).

In the Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “the classical civilization of Athens was not a triumph of civilization over barbarism. It was rather a synthesis of civilized order with ritual practices which had previously been seen as primitive and barbaric, but which the Greeks incorporated into their civilization” (Robertson 81). In Le Sacre, Nietzsche’s view of modern civilization was translated into the sacrificial dance of the Chosen Maiden, who danced herself to death, similar to the way ancient Dionysian worshippers danced themselves into frenzy. In Le Sacre the dancers “trembled, shook, shivered, stamped; jumped crudely and ferociously, circled the stage in wild khorovods. At times the movement approximated the involuntary condition of trance” (Garafola 68).

Nijinsky 1911   Giselle costume   Giselle

There is no historical reference that any such rites had taken place in pre-Christian Russia, however, James Frazer’s Golden Bough described a rite in which certain primitive peoples ensured a harvest by killing young victims (Cronin 252). Thus the ballet was an attempt to “track the art of dancing to its source in the rituals of savagery,” (Whitworth 94) which had never been done to the same extent before. The biographer Joan Acocella argued that Le Sacre “is one of the purest examples of the primitivism that so pervaded the art and thought of the early twentieth century. Superficially, a portrait of a precivilized society, it was also, by extension, an exploration of primitive impulses in the heart of civilized man (cf. Freud, Conrad, Lawrence). In addition, it was a tribute to the origins of dance in ancient fertility festivals” (Acocella 105). Thus, in the same way that Picasso incorporated primitive forms and masks into his paintings, Nijinsky re-constructed primitive movement for his ballet, thereby bringing art out of the purely aesthetic or entertaining shadow to illuminate greater critical awareness.

Faun    Firebird   Le Festin

Le Sacre came out of a tradition of Russian ballet that had been flourishing in St. Petersburg since the nineteenth century. Starting with the Renaissance in Italy, ballet grew in popularity primarily as court dance, and the very word “ballet” was coined from the Italian verb ballare, “to dance” (Anderson 17). By the late nineteenth century ballet had largely lost its former importance in Western Europe, but had a strong thriving in Imperial Russia. The Russian state sponsored theatres and ballet troupes; the Tsar personally appointed directors of the companies and all the dancers were, in a sense, Imperial servants (85). While dancers and performers were morally suspect in Western Europe, “Imperial patronage made dancing a respectable career for both men and women in Russia. Dancing provided women with job security and the opportunity to lead an independent life. Male students at the state ballet schools were considered the equals of students at military or naval academies and had similar uniforms” (85). In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Marius Petipa became the ballet master at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and made Russian ballet the cradle of Europen ballet heritage.  He choreographed classical and conservative ballets to the music of masters like Tchaikovsky, Adam, and Delibes. Petipa often incorporated long passages of mime gestures into his ballets that helped tell the story; his ballets all featured the classical movements and formations with the prima ballerina as the focal point and the star.

Anna Pavlova   Le spectre de la rose   V. Nijinsky

By 1905, a graduate of the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and the chief soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre, Michel Fokine, began to choreograph his first main-stage ballets. Fokine was influenced by Isadora Duncan, who demonstrated her free-flowing, innovative dance style during performances in Russia in 1904-1905. Together with his friend, the artist and designer Leon Bakst, Fokine was also present at the performance of the Ballet Troupe of the Royal Siamese Court in 1900. The costumes and exotic movements of the Siamese ballet left a lasting impression on the works of both men; a decade later, they would incorporate Siamese dance motifs in their designs and choreography for the Ballets Russes. Fokine is often referred to as the father of modern ballet because he revolutionized it with his innovative ideas. Among his main achievements was the breakdown of the previously accepted all-purpose balletic style; he believed that “each work must be choreographed in a style uniquely appropriate to its story, setting, or theme.” (105). He introduced shorter ballets to create a greater variety for the viewers who may have found it difficult to sit through the long ballet evenings of Petipa’s days. Fokine also elevated male roles, making them equal to that of the prima ballerina, and integrated the soloists into the ensemble, thus breaking down the hierarchical structure of dance performance. Fokine’s choreography employed both classical ballet techniques and a freer interpretive style, and he often let his lead dancers collaborate in the creation of their roles.

Sheherezade   Nijinsky    Nijinsky and Stravinsky

If Fokine opened the door to modernism, as the ballet historian Lynn Garafola claimed, he failed to cross its threshold. That radical step was taken by Vaslav Nijinsky (Garafola 50). While Fokine understood the need for change, he lacked the radicalism and boldness that Nijinsky would incorporate into his choreography. Moreover, Fokine lacked the drive to make ballet reflect modern movement, which was part of Nijinsky’s search for a new vocabulary of modernist composition. Nijinsky graduated from the Imperial Ballet School in 1902 and immediately became the rising talent at the Mariinsky Theatre. In his memoir, Fokine claimed that Nijinsky’s interpretation of his ballets was the most detailed and exact expression of Fokine’s ideas. As ballet in Russia flourished, it remained in harmony with aristocratic tastes and patronage, and was considered an elite form of entertainment. Members of the royal family would often frequent performances and rehearsals. Around that time, Serge Diaghilev was appointed by his friend, the director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Prince Sergei Volkonsky, to direct the production of the theatre’s yearbook.

Le Pavilion  Firebird    Petrushka

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev had an impressive artistic and intellectual history. A descendant of provincial aristocracy, he received a musical education as a child, and attended the St. Petersburg University to study law. Well traveled, well read, and sensitive to artistic development in Europe, Diaghilev traveled annually to Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival, where he developed a good sense of Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which would later be the aim of Diaghilev’s own productions. In 1900, joined by his friends, the painter Alexandre Benois and the designer Leon Bakst, Diaghilev formed the journal Mir Iskustva (World of Art), which featured contemporary art and literary works. As members of the fin-de-siecle generation, the contributors defined themselves as “a generation thirsty for Beauty. And we find it everywhere, both in Good and in Evil” (Bridgman 32). In his editorial essay, “Art Criticism,” Diaghilev remarked that “all art styles have an equal right to exist,” and that there should be no single, “correct” kind of art (28). This claim aligned Diaghilev with the Vienna and Berlin Secession movements that demonstrated the need for independence in art criticism and artistic expression. The overall aim of the journal was to advocate a separate sphere of debate and market for artistic expression, one independent from state censorship and similar to what already existed in Paris. However, since state patronage was essential to the existence of cultural venues in Russia, the time for artistic Secession had not yet come. Perhaps, after not being able to achieve everything he wanted through the medium of the journal, Diaghilev, with the support of Benois and Bakst, focused his attention on a new enterprise.

1914 Ballets Russes   1909 Ballets-Russes   1912 Covent Garden

In 1905 Diaghilev organized an exhibition of Russian portraits, ranging from ancient icons to modernist paintings, held under Imperial patronage in the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg. Benois designed the display settings, decorating the exhibition rooms with Greek statues. The Tsar lent priceless works from the Imperial collections, which encouraged other lenders to contribute to the impressive project. The popularity of the exhibition allowed Diaghilev to show the paintings in Paris the following year, followed by exhibitions in Berlin and Vienna. In 1906 the Franco-Russian alliance was signed and both governments were eager to finance any project that would help to cement the friendship (Haskell 53). His success at “exporting Russian painting led Diaghilev to experiment with organizing a concert at the Palais des Champs-Elysees, followed by a series of concerts at the Paris Opera” (Percival 15). In 1908 he brought to the Paris Opera Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with Feodor Chaliapin, consolidating the popularity of Russian composers in the West. 1909 was to be the year of ballet. Before Diaghilev, the décor of a new ballet production was treated as a matter of secondary importance and was left to the taste of the scene-painter and the dressmaker.

Ballet books     Program

But Diaghilev had come “straight from the one country in modern Europe that, like ancient Greece look[ed] on the theatre as an important factor in the spiritual life of a nation, and he had quite other views on the subject” (Propert 8). He believed, continuing Wagner’s legacy, that a theatrical production could only claim recognition if it were the result of the association of arts, literature, music and painting. As suggested by Simon Karlinsky, Diaghilev may be seen as a “cultural educator,” who “brought his native culture out of narrow provincialism and taught his fellow-countrymen to see and understand art,” who revealed to the Western world the importance and beauty of Russian art and music, and who brought ballet to unprecedented new heights, re-established its prestige as a major art form (Karlinsky 24). Artistic collaboration, in this case, under the leadership of a successful entrepreneur, was perhaps one of the keys to modernism. Just as Gertrude Stein’s famous gatherings of avant-garde artists and writes, just as Picasso’s rendezvous des poets where new ideas were shared and developed, so the creative forces behind the Ballets Russes represented an artistically diverse circle of talents. What distinguished modernists from previous generations was their need of an eclectic cultural community of artistic and literary collaboration.

Ballets Russes   Ballets Russes 1916

In his personal life, Diaghilev was a well-connected aristocrat and socialite who never missed a ball, an exhibition, or a new performance. Diaghilev’s homosexuality was of little importance outside his circle of his friends, until the moment in his career when he was given a position in the Imperial Theatre hierarchy. It did not occur to him that he should be tactful in his dealings with the permanent staff. It is not clear whether it was solely on the account of his homosexuality that he was dismissed from his position at the Mariinsky, but by 1909 he no longer held a distinguished position in the St. Petersburg theatre world. It was around this time that he began living with the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. For Diaghilev’s personal and professional life-style, St. Petersburg was no longer suitable. Just as Gertrude Stein would not have been able to live openly with a woman and hold a popular salon as she did in her Parisian apartment had she remained in America, so Diaghilev would not have been able to live the kind of life and create the kinds of works he did in Paris had he remained in St. Petersburg.

Blue Train 1924 Chanel costumes Parade by Picasso

Many modernists often had to reinvent themselves, away from their natural and familiar environment, in order to actually find themselves. Having run into various limitations and hindrances in St. Petersburg, Diaghilev felt the need to search for a more liberal environment to express his artistic and entrepreneurial creativity. Paris provided liberty and the blend of talents and ideas that lead to the balletic Gesamtkunstwerk that Diaghilev envisioned. Since the Paris World Fair of 1900, Russian art and literature had been increasingly popular in France. Diaghilev discovered an enormous demand for Russian music and ballet. He also found the type of enlightened and curious audience he had been searching for. The Parisian audience was hungry for the exotic escapism that Diaghilev provided. He gave them extraordinary ballets, like Cleopatre, Scheherazade, and Thamar, which emphasized the idea that sexual ecstasy is worth dying for. Diaghilev understood that Parisians wished to be transported into foreign worlds. Diaghilev believed in the “the unique ability of an artist to communicate to ordinary minds what would otherwise be unattainable to them,” and putting his theory in practice, the Ballets Russes allowed Parisian audiences to “feel through them, to expand and free their senses” (Bridgman 41).

Le train bleu

The enormous success of Diaghilev’s first season, followed by the equally highly acclaimed season of 1910, led Diaghilev to stop relying on dancers borrowed from the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and to form his own company in 1911, the Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev.  Thus Diaghilev, Benois, Bakst, Fokine and Nijinsky, as well as the dancers of the Ballets Russes became expatriates escaping their familiar environment in order to find themselves. Unlike in St. Petersburg, where a state censor could attend dress rehearsals and prevent certain performances from premiering (as in the case of Oscar Wilde’s Salome), in Paris, artistic creativity had free reign. The London Times printed an article in 1911 after the Ballets Russes performed at the royal gala to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII, claiming that “in Russia, the ballet has been essentially an aristocratic institution, maintained by an autocratic government for the use of the cultivated classes” (Percival 45).

Ballets Russes

In Russia, the ballet was limited by notions of propriety and convention; in Paris the limits could be stretched. During the next years Diaghilev would learn to adjust to the tastes of different audiences, catering to different sensibilities. In London, the romantic, sentimental ballets were preferred to the exotic, sexual ones. In Berlin, on the other hand, Cleopatre was praised by the Kaiser more than the other ballets. In America, Scheherazade was unpopular with the racists, who caused trouble throughout the tour, especially in the south, by suggesting that “black” and “white” characters should not appear on stage at the same time (Parker 163). Ironically, Paris audiences could take the racial and sexual exoticism as well as the Russian folkloric motifs, along with the romantic traditional ballets, but refused to admire experimental dancing. The capital of the avant-garde failed to recognize the value of the new. Parisian audiences still expected to be transported into a world more beautiful and wonderful than their own. However, in 1909, Paris was receiving the Russian ballet with sold-out theatres and Diaghilev presented them with new and exciting treats to satisfy their love of spectacle.

Ballets Russes Sheherezade Ballets Russes

Exoticism was inherent in Russian culture. Prior to WWI the Russian empire stretched from the North Pole to the borders of the Ottoman Empire in the south, and from the Pacific to the borders of the Prussian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, with St. Petersburg as its notorious “window” into Europe. Foreign elements had been incorporated into Russian culture since the days of the imperial conquests of the Ottoman territories. The Caucasus was made familiar through the literary works of Pushkin and Lermontov in the nineteenth century. In Russian consciousness the myths of the Orient, like the stories of 1001 Nights, were as familiar as the folkloric tales of Petrushka and Prince Ivan’s encounters with the Firebird.  “It was not by accident,” Benois wrote in his memoir, “that what was afterwards known as the Ballets Russes was originally conceived not by the professionals of the dance but by a circle of artists, linked together by the idea of Art as an entity.
Ballets Russes Ticket

Everything followed from the common desire of several painters and musicians to see the fulfillment of the theatrical dreams which haunted them” (Percival 90). As the biographer Richard Buckle points out, “because the success of the Russians was partly due to the new miracle of male dancing, there was something scandalous about it. Since the Romantic period, it had been the woman, the Muse, the diva, the ballerina who had been worshipped: to admire a man for his grace and beauty was unheard of and in some circles unthinkable” (Buckle 107). The artistic collaboration of Bakst, Benois, and Fokine during the early seasons in Paris was enriched by the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky. His performance in the 1909 Le Festin caused a sensation and made him famous overnight. In his high jumps he appeared to defy gravity. The English critic Cyril Beaumont wrote, “He did not so much dance to the music, he appeared to issue from it. His dancing was music made visible” (Acocella 110).

Les Etoiles

Jean Cocteau described Nijinsky as being “below average height. Body and soul, he was pure professional deformity;” Cocteau also pointed out that “nobody would ever have believed that this little monkey-like man with thinning hair…was the idol of the public…. Everything about him was designed to be seen from a distance, in the limelight” (Cocteau 259). Tamara Karsavina, who danced all the leading roles with Nijinsky, describes him in her memoirs as lacking the “gift of precise thought” (Karsavina 290). Lydia Sokolova, who joined the Ballets Russes in 1913 and remained until the end in 1929, presents a similar portrait of Nijinsky:

[Nijinsky] made no contact at all with any of the dancers. He never spoke to anybody. He walked about, up and down, picking his fingers and fussing with his face and his eyes; he’d look at you for a very long time, and then he’d turn and go away. So it was impossible to know him as a person. As a dancer, of course, he was supreme, and again completely remote. You couldn’t talk to him about his dancing… As a choreographer, well, I don’t know how to tell you because it was just something he brought with him and showed you and you could either do it or you couldn’t do it… Our opinion about him as a company was that it was never instant inspiration, that it was mostly worked out at home with Diaghilev and his advisors and musicians and the composer, and that it came almost on a platter, and we were then taught to do this (Drummond 145).

Sokolova criticized Romola Nijinsky’s romanticized biography of her husband, calling her portrayal misleading: “She puts into Vaslav’s mouth long speeches which would have taken him a whole week to say, as he always spoke in monosyllables. Reading her descriptions, one would think that poor Nijinsky conversed and behaved as a normal person, which was quite untrue” (Sokolova 91). Igor Stravinsky, who met the dancer through Diaghilev in 1909, remembered Nijinsky as “childishly spoiled and impulsive,” and noticed “absences in his personality” suggesting that he did not know the musical alphabet (Stravinsky  and Craft 35). In his memoir, Stravinsky also mentioned that “Nijinsky was wholly without guile. More than that, he was naively – appallingly – honest. He never understood that in Society one does not always say all that one thinks” (36).


Nijinsky was only nineteen years old when he joined Diaghilev’s ballet. In 1913 he was twenty-four and the youngest choreographer in the history of dance to be put in charge of a ballet company. Nijinsky felt a constant sense of inferiority when dealing with the other members of the creative team. In his diary, written in 1917 when he was on the verge of insanity and published in 1936 by his wife, Nijinsky described his discomfort with the way others perceived him:

Stravinsky is a good composer, but he does not think about life. His compositions have no purpose. I do not like works of art that have no moral aim. I often explained this to him, and what my idea is, but he thought that I was a stupid boy and therefore talked only to Diaghilev, who agreed with his ideas. I could say nothing, because I was supposed to be a youngster (Nijinsky  38).

Diaghilev met Stravinsky in 1909 and commissioned him to write two ballet scores, The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). Stravinsky claims that the idea of Le Sacre came to him while he was working on Petrushka and through his collaboration with the Russian painter and designer, Nicholas Roerich. Stravinsky wanted to capture the violent Russian spring in his music. The original title was in Russian, Vesna Svyshennaya, (Sacred Spring) translated into French for the 1913 premiere. However, as Millicent Hodson points out, not until the 1920 revival was the English title standardized as The Rite of Spring (Hodson viii).

Ballets Russes

Stravinsky’s innovative score was strongly rooted in traditional folk motifs. Stravinsky was attracted by the idea of “reconstructing the mysterious past,” as Benois wrote in his Reminiscences,

chiefly because it gave him free space in his search for unusual rhythms and sounds. Naturally nothing was known of the music of those remote days and Stravinsky felt himself free from all constraint and all rules. Diaghilev himself was equally interested in the idea of creating a “primitive” ballet. It satisfied his own “barbarian instincts”… he saw a magnificent opportunity for “shattering” the Parisian audience – better even than Petrouchka. The new ballet was to contain nothing of European or any known civilization” (Benois 347).

Stravinsky believed that “a mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy,” and that “the more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free” (Stravinsky 83, 85). In contradiction to what many believed was a free range of musical innovation, Stravinsky’s score was, in fact conditioned by his own rhythmical patterns. Musical historian Peter Hill suggests that two events have added to our knowledge of Le Sacre. The first, which took place in Stravinsky’s lifetime, in 1969, was the publication of the musical sketches together with notes on the choreography; the other was the discovery by Lawrence Morton (in 1979) of the extent to which Le Sacre is based on folk music. More recently Richard Taruskin stressed the paradox in Le Sacre seeing Stravinsky’s most revolutionary early work as rooted in Russian traditions, “a fusion of extremes of old and new” (Hill vii).

Rites of Spring Rites of Spring

Thus the music, just as the choreography, presented a new form of composition by drawing on concepts of folklore and primitivism. “The discoveries I have made in Stravinsky’s sketchbook,” Taruskin claims “are particularly interesting because they reveal the underlying presence of folk melodies which… are not ‘displayed’ in the finished product, but are absorbed into Stravinsky’s musical fabric to such an extent that without the sketchbook their presence could never be suspected. In other words, the sketchbook allows us for the first time actually to witness the… abstraction of stylistic elements from folk music” (Garafola 66). All the members of Le Sacre’s creative team, including Diaghilev, were fascinated by the idea of presenting a series of primitive rites danced in ensembles and did not intend the ballet to have a linear plot. As the Troupe’s regisseur, Serge Grigoriev, pointed out in his memoirs, both Diaghilev and Nijinsky were aware that Stravinsky’s music was “unsuitable for dancing,” but they aimed at presenting “a succession of rhythmically moving groups.” However, due to Nijinsky’s inexperience the production was repeatedly “stuck.” (Grigoriev 79).

Rites of Spring

The relationship between the music and the choreography of Le Sacre reveals similar aspirations and underlying guiding principles; it is therefore interesting that Stravinsky would become disillusioned with Nijinsky’s choreography and attempt to disassociate the music from the ballet. Nijinsky made his debut as choreographer with the 1912 production of L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune. Nothing in Nijinsky’s earlier dancing could prepare his audience for the radical break from classical balletic movement in his choreography. Cyril Beaumont argues that “Nijinsky’s role in Petrouchka played some part in the preliminary formation of his views on choreography, for something of the angular, jerky movements which Fokine designed for the dolls in Petrouchka is to be encountered in Nijinsky’s first three ballets” (Beaumont 16). The biographer Derek Parker records a rare incident of Nijinsky’s presentation of his ideas to the creative team of the Ballets Russes:

A French journalist, Hector Cahusac, was once present when Diaghilev, Cocteau, Bakst, Reynaldo Hahn and some others were sitting outside a café in the Bois during the 1912 season, discussing the development of the ballet. Bakst suggested that what was needed was a return to old balletic values, and Robert Brussel agreed: the charm of the ballet lay in its being old-fashioned – and in any event how could modern ballet reflect in any way the most recent artistic movement, cubism? The human body was an instrument that could not be fragmented in that way. Suddenly, Cahusac reports, Nijinsky came to life: ‘A man’s body,’ he said, ‘contains elements that mirror the characteristics of his time. Look at a man walking down the street, reading a newspaper, dancing the tango – there’s nothing in common between his gestures and those of someone of the age of Louis XV, or a monk copying manuscripts in the thirteenth century. I’ve been looking at polo-players, tennis-players; they’re not just sports, they don’t just provide healthy exercise – they have a plastic beauty of their own, and we have to seek out forms which will characterize our own time just as expressively as the old ballet movements characterize the antique style of living and moving.’ ‘An audience,’ Nijinsky continued, ‘should not have to think while watching a ballet any more than one consciously had to think while looking at a painting or listening to music;’ he wanted to score a ballet so that its meaning would be the very movements in it – a bend of a finger, the stretching of a muscle – and not by mere jumps and pirouettes…‘Childish nonsense!’ ejaculated Bakst; at which Vaslav relapsed into silence… (Parker 110-111)

This is a rare and precious record of Nijinsky’s concepts of choreography. His continuous search for modern movement, as well as a dance style that would convey meaning through movement rather than through a narrative story was realized in all four of the ballets he choreographed. Nijinsky also wrote to his sister explaining his intentions in Le Sacre and describing the inspiration he received from Roerich’s paintings of Russian spring. “Do you remember it, Bronia?” he wrote, “the violent and purple colors of the vast barren landscape in the predawn darkness, as a ray of the rising sun shines on a solitary group gathered on top of a hill to greet the arrival of spring. Roerich has talked to me at length about his paintings in this series that he describes as the awakening of the spirit of primeval man. In Sacre I want to emulate this spirit of the prehistoric Slavs” (Garafola 67).

Faun  Nijinsky

It is difficult to fully understand what really moved Nijinsky to create a radically modern ballet by presenting a prehistoric community. The unreliability of primary sources, such as Nijinsky’s diary and the biography written by his wife, make it difficult to piece together the ideas that contributed to the legendary creation. Although the evidence is scarce, it paints the picture of a misunderstood genius, a “seeker of truth” (R. Nijinsky 18) and an artist on the verge of self-destruction. To assist Nijinsky with the task of choreographing a rhythmically difficult score, Diaghilev hired Marie Rambert, a student of Jacques Dalcroze at the Institute for the Study of Eurhythmics at Hellerau, near Dresden. During the rehearsals Marie Rambert saved lives, as Lydia Sokolova put it, interpreting among Stravinsky, the pianist, Nijinsky, and the dancers (Drummond 146). Millicent Hodson explained that “in spite of the complexities of the ballet and the conflicts of the rehearsal period, the dancers, too, ultimately had faith in the work. They went on stage for the Paris premiere believing that a masterpiece was at hand. The riot, therefore, shocked them more than anyone. It was in the aftermath that Nijinsky’s “crime against grace” came to be seen as an indication of his own instability, a classic case of blaming the victim for the crime” (Hodson x).

Le Sacre

There is evidence that despite all the difficulties and misunderstandings at the rehearsals, the troupe expected to present a successful ballet. Even if some members of Ballets Russes may have had doubts, no one anticipated a riot. What distinguished Nijinsky from the other talented members of the Ballets Russes was his “willingness to make something that looked ugly.” Unlike the generation before him who sought beauty in everything, Nijinsky, along with Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso and other modernist artists “murdered beauty” (Acocella 111). Gertrude Stein recorded that Picasso once remarked that, “when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.” (Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 22). In her Composition as Explanation (1926), Stein also discusses the notion that the contemporary was generally perceived as ugly, and the classic was usually characterized as beautiful, but that the key to understanding modern art was to realize that “beauty is beauty even when it is irritating.” (Stein, Composition as Explanation  515). The dichotomy between the classical beauty and the modernist ugliness is also evident in Nijinsky’s struggle in choreography. He was sensitive to modern art and was particularly moved by the paintings of Gauguin. In an interview with a British paper, he remarked once, “I detest conventional ‘nightingale-and-roses’ poetry; my own inclinations are primitive.” (Parker 140). While Picasso and Stein put forth a new definition of beauty; Nijinsky showed that beauty was no longer essential in a work of art.

Ballet Russes   Sacre

On the night of the premiere of Le Sacre, Diaghilev scheduled the evening’s program with Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and the Polovtsian Dances. Since none of the stars – Karsavina, Nijinsky, and Bolm – were taking part in the new ballet, he was hoping that by showing each of them in one or more favourite roles would ensure the success of the performance as a whole. As the regisseur Grigoriev described in his account of the night, Diaghilev “clearly had misgivings about the reception of Stravinsky’s music and warned us that there might be a demonstration against it. He entreated the dancers, if so, to keep calm and carry on, and asked Monteux on no account to let the orchestra cease playing. ‘Whatever happens,’ he said, ‘the ballet must be performed to the end’” (Grigoriev 83). Lydia Sokolova’s description of the performance is not without irony:

Sacre is quite a long ballet, and a very noisy one; but the uproar in the audience made it hard for us to hear the music. We were all terrified that we were doing the fourth, fifth or sixth steps, while somebody else was doing the second; and Nijinsky was in the wings stamping and trying to count for different groups all at once. We could see Diaghilev too, walking up and down, holding his head. We must have been a lovely picture for the audience, racing round, jumping, turning, and wondering when the whole thing was going to collapse (Sokolova 44).

Le Sacre du Printemps

The image of “the dancers dancing to the noise of the audience” (Eksteins 13) illustrates the legendary spectacle that stands out in the history of modernism. The audience was actively participating in the event. It was not just another performance, it was a riot. The fact that the music could not be heard also illustrates that the choreography was strong enough to hold on its own. Thus, the masses on stage were dancing to the noise made by the masses in the audience. The audience was split into the conservative and outraged opposition and the sympathetic supporters of the new ballet. Cocteau described the reaction of two sections of the public to the ballet and to each other as inevitable, almost as if Diaghilev had planned the juxtaposition of diverse groups:

All the elements of a scandal were present. The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The later would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes…. Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented…. The audience played the role that was written for it…. (Buckle 253).

Whether Diaghilev meant to have a success due to a scandal is not clear. He certainly could not afford to have an unsuccessful ballet in his repertory, and consequently cancelled any future performances of Le Sacre. Ironically, by catering to the tastes of the public and expelling Le Sacre after only six performances, Diaghilev also helped to mythologize  the performance. The event stands out as a mysterious incident in the history of dance and a challenge to the traditional conceptions of art.

Sacre costumes by Roerich   Theatre des Champs Elysees   Sacre Program

Jean Cocteau noted that, after the first reception of Le Sacre, Nijinsky had to dance his famous part in Le Spectre de la Rose, in which he had the opportunity to show all his virtuosity and skill, he danced it “with a bad grace” because he could not bear to hear Le Spectre applauded and his own creation booed (Cocteau 259). Le Sacre created an “extraordinary atmosphere of savagery,” (Beaumont 19) and coming after the romantic beauty of Fokine’s ballets, it was a tremendous shock to the audience. The French reviews were generally harsh, the English reviews generally dismissive. German critics claimed that Stravinsky was throbbing with barbarism and was not ashamed to express it, which made him so “typically Russian” (Lesure 105). Le Figaro accused Nijinsky of pulling the public’s leg; Le Revue Francaise de la Musique spoke of epileptic fits, absurd dancing, “a choreography of puppets on string”; Le Monde Musical found the piece “oddly impressive,” though “grotesque and absurd” and Commedia underlined the artist’s right to experiment. The three further performances of the ballet during the Paris season were watched in polite silence, and though there were a few cat-calls it was at least tolerated (Parker 144).

Nijinsky and Karsavina  Nijinsky   Le Spectre de la Rose

Because the ballet was dropped from the program in 1913, and because of Nijinsky’s approaching nervous breakdown, nobody at the time thought it necessary to preserve the ballet. When it was re-choreographed by Leonide Massine in 1920, it was a different, simplified version. Because of the complexity and difficulty of Nijinsky’s choreography, the original ballet was soon forgotten even by the dancers who performed it. As Millicent Hodson argues in her work on the reconstruction of Le Sacre, Nijinsky “renounced balletic grace in order to let other truths emerge,” and that “Nijinsky’s inverted postures, out of which he had constructed a style for Le Sacre du Printemps, were a denial of the authority invested in modern civilization.” (Hodson xix).

Le Spectre  Ballets Russes  Ballets Russes

The original choreography personified the primitive impulses in the heart of civilized man. Hodson recreated the lost choreography from the annotated original sketches with remarks made by Stravinsky and Marie Rambert, as well as from other sources, such as the drawings by Valentine Gross and the few existing photographs taken of the costumed dancers. Hodson’s book illustrates each section of the score, giving a clear sense of the group movements. One can feel the energy verging on chaos and see the mechanical mass movement of the dancers imposed by the rhythm of the score. The music and the choreography conveyed a strong sense of revolutionary mobility: the dancers no longer moved as individuals with the grace and virtuosity expected of performers on stage; they moved in circles and lines, making up parts of a larger mechanism. They assembled and regrouped and split into fractions, they migrated from one side of the stage to the other, and returned to different formations, accentuating different beats and rhythmic changes.  Jacques Riviere suggested that the ballet presented “spring as seen from the inside, with its violence, its spasms and its fissions. We seem to be watching a drama through a microscope” (Buckle 252).

The Rite of Spring   Rite of Spring 1913

Lydia Sokolova, who danced the part of one of the young maidens, called the ballet a “mechanical calculation” (Drummond 146). The dancing was continuously determined by the music. Each change in sound and rhythm was reflected in the varying numbers of the dancers, the colour of their garments, and the intensity of their movements. The red groups would dominate the stage in the passage of horns and trumpets, while violins or flutes carried the sense of white or grey (Propert 79). The London Times featured an article on Le Sacre, entitled “The Fusion of Music and Dancing,” with a detailed description of how the choreography corresponded to the difficult score:

Not only does M. Roerich’s beautiful scenery also form an important part of the whole, but even the colours of the dresses are to some extent reflected in the orchestration – as, for instance, in the first scene, when a group of maidens in vivid scarlet huddles together to the accompaniment of closely-written chords on the trumpets. Movements too, are mirrored in an equally realistic way, when, a little later on, the dancers thin out into a straggling line while the orchestra dwindles to a trill on the flutes; then a little tune begins in the woodwind two octaves apart, and two groups of three people detach themselves from either end of the line to begin a little dance that exactly suits the music (Lesure 63).

Nijinsky’s choreography was, indeed, music made visible. The application of Dalcroze’s theory on the plastic interpretation of music was evident throughout the choreography. Nijinsky implemented Dalcroze’s idea that every note of any musical theme must be marked with a corresponding movement on the part of the dancer. This polyrhythmic dancing was illustrated by setting one group of dancers to beat out softly the contrapuntal accompaniment of a theme which was being directly and more forcibly danced by another group. The device was very brilliantly used at the end of the first act of Le Sacre, where a great circle of women moved to the notes of the main theme, while groups of men within the circles moved in threefold counterpoint (Propert 80).

Sacre sketches

Such a mosaic of movement and colour must have been impressive considering the diversity of moving ensembles to the multiple layers of rhythm. Nijinsky had to rehearse separately with every group, so that in the end the whole ballet looked very asymmetrical but organic and not devoid of unity, as if the groups existed independently of each other and at the same time could float in and out of a unified formation. In the biography of her husband, Romola Nijinsky claims that “the choreography was the most amazing and correct visualization of the score” (Romola Nijinsky 204). Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, wrote in her memoir that “an awareness of the need for fearless self-expression – of the original, of the individual, of the unknown in art – awakened that night” (Nijinska 470). It is sadly ironic that Stravinsky refused to appreciate the complexity of Nijinsky’s choreography. However, he did not want Fokine to choreograph the ballet either. In a letter to his mother in 1912, Stravinsky called Fokine “an exhausted artist,” whose highest achievement in Scheherazade marked the beginning of his decline (Buckle 219).  Interestingly, Stravinsky claimed that Nijinsky “did not know music, and therefore his notion of the relation of dance to it was primitive” (Stravinsky  and Craft 37). Stravinsky also criticized Nijinsky for believing that “the choreography should re-emphasize the musical beat and pattern through constant co-ordination,” thereby rejecting Nijinsky’s adherence to Dalcroze.  Stravinsky believed that “this restricted the dance to rhythmic duplication of the music and made of it an imitation.” He wrote, “Choreography, as I conceive it, must realize its own form, one independent of the musical form though measured to the musical unit” (37).

Sacre music

Millicent Hodson also commented on the conflict between the composer and the choreographer:

The complexities that Stravinsky cherished in his own work he belittled in the choreography: “Nijinsky complicated and encumbered his dances beyond all reason.” The contrapuntal choreography of 1913 had struck musically sophisticated critics with wonder, Carl Van Vechten and Cyril Beaumont among them. But now it was denounced by the composer who had inspired it….Nijinsky’s corps de ballet, like the orchestra, divide, trait, and overlap time signatures with a fecundity that truly matches the break-through of spring. The Stravinsky of the 1930’s chose to forget this achievement. “What the choreography expressed was a very labored and barren effort rather than a plastic realization flowing simply and naturally from what the music demanded,” he wrote, thus recommending exactly what he had rejected in Fokine and what Riviere recognized that Nijinsky had rejected in Fokine (Hodson xviii).

Stravinsky’s strongest criticism of Nijinsky’s choreography appeared in his autobiography in 1936, where he stated:

In composing the Sacre I had imagined the spectacular part of the performance as a series of rhythmic mass movements of the greatest simplicity which would have an instantaneous effect on the audience, with no superfluous details or complications such as would suggest effort. The only solo was to be the sacrificial dance at the end of the piece. The music of that dance, clear and well defined, demanded a corresponding choreography – simple and easy to understand. But there again, although he had grasped the dramatic significance of the dance, Nijinsky was incapable of giving intelligible form to its essence, and complicated it either by clumsiness or lack of understanding. For it is undeniably clumsy to slow down the tempo of the music in order to compose complicated steps which cannot be danced in the tempo prescribed. Many choreographers have that fault, but I have never known any who erred in that respect to the same degree as Nijinsky (Lederman  152).

It seems that the two artists had very distinct visions and disagreed on each other’s approaches to the work. As a result of the scandalous premiere, the blame was put on Nijinsky’s choreography and Stravinsky wrote numerous articles and books trying to separate the score from the dance. However, many musical historians, like Geoffrey Whitworth and Peter Hill, believe that the detachment of the two works was illogical because of the “inseparable connection” of the music and the ballet (Whitworth 97). Particularly when listening to the part of the Chosen Maiden dancing herself to death at the end of the second act, “the music needs to be experienced in the way it was originally meant – as a ballet, a dramatic narrative rather than the ‘abstraction’ Stravinsky later preferred.” (Hill 89).

Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Spain 1921

The New York Times printed an article on “Stravinsky and Psychoanalysis” on April 21, 1924. Although the article was a response to the Boston Symphony’s performance of Stravinsky’s score, the Americans had witnessed a revised version of the ballet, choreographed by Leonide Massine, when the Ballets Russes toured in North America. The article claimed that Stravinsky’s music was “psychologically a representation of the past,” and that it was “primitive, but not imitative” (Lesure 98). Drawing connections with the theories of Freud and Jung, the article discussed how Stravinsky does not so much say,

“Come, we are savages!” as he says, “Come, we were once savages; let us see how it was, we intellectual people!” He says: “This is not the music we played but how we felt.” It is a difficult thing, especially for such as have been brought up to moral ideas of religion and other things, and for such as would (if they could understand it at all) undoubtedly oppose the recent investigations of Freud, Jung, Abraham and all the rest, to understand. Stravinsky tries to do the “psychoanalytic,” to draw the thing out of the unconscious, especially of such people as I have mentioned. Any one who has followed the course of “psychoanalysis” and the violent revulsions it has caused, will perhaps understand why certain patrons and patronesses, and certain musicians, were leaving the hall before the end of the piece. It was too painful… to face the fact that there is still a lot left in us that is not quite so nice as would appear from the outside (98).

The article gives a sense of how new the language of psychology was in 1924. It appears that the author is skeptical of the new theories, which is emphasized by the quotation marks around “psychoanalysis” (as if it were still not safe to call it that). It is also not clear if the author is even convinced of his own argument, especially since he concludes by saying: “The ‘Rites of Spring’ is only a further proof that dancing is sex, and no dancing is, properly speaking a moral thing. For myself I should like to now hear the piece many many times before forming any fixed opinion” (98).

Ballet Russes Firebird

Judging from this article it seems less surprising that the press in 1913 had no ways of connecting Le Sacre to any psychological insights or, for that matter, saying anything sympathetic at all. The strongest supporter of Le Sacre and Nijinsky’s choreography, Jacques Riviere, did not publish his defense until November 1930. Although Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams appeared as early as 1900, his concept of life’s struggle between Eros, the moving force of all creation, and Thanatos, the death-force, was not circulated until the 1920 appearance of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In that work Freud also introduced the notion that the violent actions of primitive people survive as the violent fantasies of the civilized. Although Freud was the first to discuss psychoanalysis scientifically, the human psyche was already being examined in the arts: in the paintings of Picasso, in the music of Stravinsky, and in the choreography of Nijinsky. As suggested by Modris Eksteins and Lynn Garafola, Le Sacre also looked to the future, foreshadowing sacrificial death on a massive scale. Garafola calls Le Sacre “a harbinger of modernity” and Nijinsky’s dancing masses “both the agents and victims of twentieth century barbarism” (Garafola 70). Eksteins refers to the “celebration of life through sacrificial death” and the notion of art as deliverance from the social constraints of morality (Eksteins xiv, 30). Diaghilev and Nijinsky, along with other famous artists and writers, realized that in order to “achieve freedom of vision, [the artist] must have no regard for morality” (31).

Tamara Karsavina

When Andre Gide wrote in The Immoralist that “culture, born of life, ultimately kills life,” he was saying that the achievements of Western civilization were also the suffocating bourgeois conventions that prevented that civilization from developing (something that Freud would argue in Civilizations and its Discontents thirty years later, and something that Nietzsche argued in his Genealogy of Morals in the previous century). What Nijinsky did in his choreography of Le Sacre, rather than addressing the issue of morality from the position of sexuality, as he did in L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune and Jeux, which paradoxically appeared less shocking to the Parisian public, he presented a community that was fictional, yet epitomized all that civilized society has overcome and repressed, letting the body speak for itself. Nijinsky understood the symbolism of movement. He understood that each epoch had a characteristic style of movement, and believed that to align the movement of the present with the art of the present would result in what Gertrude Stein called modern composition. However, he chose to express that movement as symbolic primitivism in a way that revealed the shortcomings of what was considered civilized, without presenting a narrative, but letting the movements and formations of the dancers tell the story.

Pavlova as Swan

The loss of Le Sacre after only six performances is partly due to the falling out between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. Both professionally and personally, the two men drifted apart, and the decision to take Le Sacre out of the repertory of the troupe was perhaps the first time Diaghilev made a decision based on business advantages rather than aesthetic views. Bronislava Nijinska records Diaghilev saying that “A painting or a piece of music might be misunderstood at first and remain unappreciated for a long time, maybe for a hundred years… but a ballet must be well received by the public today and tomorrow, otherwise it is doomed to obscurity” (Nijinska 469). This appears to be the only instance when Diaghilev miscalculated and misunderstood the significance of Le Sacre. Serge Grigoriev noted that Diaghilev regarded Le Sacre as an important work, but then realized that the “time had not yet come for a due appreciation of either Stravinsky’s score or Nijinsky’s choreographic conception” (Grigoriev 84). However, “when Diaghilev parted from Fokine and embarked on a new course in choreography, he hoped that the Paris public would acclaim it. But the precise opposite occurred; and after the fiasco of Le Sacre Diaghilev realized he had fallen out of step with current taste and must again alter direction” (85).

Scheherazade, Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky was fired by Diaghilev after his marriage to Romola in 1913 during the ballet’s South American tour. He would return to dance with the Ballets Russes in 1916 during another tour in America, where he also presented his last choreographed ballet, Till Eulenspiegel. In 1919, Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and was institutionalized for the first time. He died in London in 1950 and was buried at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. Diaghilev died unexpectedly in 1929 in Venice, ending the legacy of twenty glorious years of Russian ballet in the West. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the experience of the original performance of Le Sacre du Printemps was that the audience was forced to participate in the conception of a work of art. Whereas traditionally a safe distance existed between the object and the spectators, allowing them to remain unchallenged and even untouched by what they saw, this work directly engaged human consciousness. It forced people to react, to engage critically, and to take sides; it forced them to examine themselves in light of what was presented to them on stage – and this element of self-reflection as a driving force of modernist composition was undoubtedly new and unexpected.

Nijinsky's grave in Paris   Nijinsky Jeux   Sacre

In the same way that Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon transcended the boundaries of visual dimension and made the viewer feel self-conscious, as though he saw himself “seen” when looking at the five women in the painting, so the ballet became somewhat of a slap in the face to all those in the audience who were accustomed to retreating behind social conventions and hiding their lack of awareness behind bourgeois facades. Psychological engagement with the universal notions of the self and the other, and its dialectic relationship, were thus taken out of the realm of philosophy and psychology and placed right in the centre of a high society gathering. Suddenly all the uncomfortable questions about the notions of life and existence, all that people generally seek to escape, were staring right into the public’s face. Even more threatening was that this event was happening right there, in what was considered “their” “civilized” sphere. Through the medium of art that sphere was democratized. There would no longer be a space where bourgeois values could remain unquestioned, and the particularly conservative members of the audience were outraged because on some intuitive level they understood that.

Roerich Costumes

The revolt against public sensibility and traditions of classical dance is too narrow an explanation of the impact, the furore, and the scandal of Le Sacre. The answer to its mystery and its haunting legacy lies in the synthesis of powerful artistic and psychological forces which carried encrypted signals of death, destruction, demise, and de-construction of our civilized world, disguised under the innocent and primitive movements of dance. It is precisely this focus on the ugly and dark abyss of the collective unconscious, this attempt to dig beyond the façade of convention, this emphasis on self-reflection on a mass scale that distinguishes Le Sacre as modern. Although it was perceived as unpopular, outrageous, dull, over-complicated and awkward, Le Sacre managed to reflect and criticize the theories and sensibilities of its time and place, while portraying the lives and customs of people in a pre-historic community. As every great work of art, it is time-bound and timeless at the same time. As many masterpieces, it was ahead of its time and unappreciated by contemporaries; as much Cubist and Expressionist art, it was perceived as ugly and disturbing; as Gertrude Stein’s experimental writing, it captured a moment in the continuous present, and as Freud’s writings on psychoanalysis, it revealed dream-like images of our collective unconsciousness, uncovering the human psyche and unleashing a new dimension of perception.


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Ballets Russes on tour

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