Sklute on Nijinsky

Artistic Director Adam Sklute discusses the history of Vaslav Nijinsky and his ideas on staging The Nijinsky Revolution, a triple bill dedicated to one of ballet’s greatest artists.

Vaslav Nijinsky was considered the greatest male dancer of the early 20th Century. His leaps were legendary—defying gravity in ways that ballet audiences had never seen before. His characterizations were complex and multi-faceted. And his whole personae was shrouded in mystery and glamour making him an idol and “superstar” of his era.

Born of Polish descent to dancer parents in the Kiev in 1889, Nijinsky studied ballet at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia. By all accounts he was a lazy and distracted student who succeeded early, solely on his amazing natural abilities. Nijinsky began his dancing career with the Mariinsky Theater premiering in many of the great classics. In 1909 he traveled to Paris with the impresario Serge Diaghilev as the leading male dancer of Diaghilev’s newly formed Les Ballets Russes a company that combined untried and avant guarde composers, artists, and choreography and became the toast of Paris. Nijinsky excited and inspired audiences with his astounding technique and performances. Under Diaghilev’s instruction, he would also choreograph several unusual and, at times, alarming works for the Parisian audiences of the late Belle Epoche. He stopped dancing around 1920 and it is said, in the murky history of his later years, he descended into madness, and died in a sanatorium in 1950.

Nijinsky’s work was revolutionary. It changed the way the world viewed ballet and influenced countless choreographers into the future. Creating only four ballets – L’Apres Midi d’un Faune (1912); Jeux (1913)—both to the music of Claude Debussy; Le Sacre du Printemps (1913)—Igor Stravinsky; Till Eulenspiegel (1916)—Richard Straus,  Nijinsky’s works created a sensation and riots due to their controversial nature and decidedly un-balletic movement quality.

Nijinsky was looking to redefine ballet and in doing so he turned it on its head.  His approach was angular, earthbound and flat footed—the antitheses of our fluid and graceful art form. He chose scenarios that were unheard of for ballet in the early 20th Century—Greek friezes, pagan rituals, and chance encounters with sexual overtones. His motives were not solely to shock, he was trying to tell the world that ballet could and should be about anything. Like paintings and music, the possibilities were limitless. As a choreographer, however, Nijinsky’s actual steps and movement were ultimately limited (a few years later his sister Bronislava, the greater choreographer, was able to meld fascinating ballet steps and scenarios to her brother’s unorthodox inventions), but Nijinsky’s vision and approach paved the way for today’s modern dance and contemporary ballet influencing countless choreographers from George Balanchine to Frederick Ashton, Martha Graham to Twyla Tharp. In putting together this program, The Nijinsky Revolution, I wanted to explore what current or later choreographers would do with the same music and the same basic premises that Nijinsky used in his. In effect how this new work revolutionized Nijinsky’s revolutions.

Jerome Robbins’ 1953 Afternoon of a Faun is admittedly not new work.  Robbins created it fifty years after the premiere of the original Nijinsky and it is now over fifty years old itself.  But Robbins’ version to the beloved Debussy score is a masterpiece that is considered by many to have surpassed the original. In Nijinsky’s 1912 version the action revolves around a mythical Greek creature half man, half deer as he rests languorously by a pool of water. He is interrupted by a group of nymphs and he becomes attracted to their leader. The Faun and the Nymph dance together and she departs, leaving behind her scarf for him to remember her by and fantasize about. The whole work is presented in a series of two-dimensional poses as if they were living friezes on the side of a Greek vase. There is a hypnotic simplicity to the Nijinsky ballet that puts one in a reverie. In Robbins’ retelling he sets the action in a sun-drenched ballet studio of billowing white silk where a young man is revealed lounging on the floor. He dances by himself and is interrupted by a ballerina who enters the studio to do her exercises. They dance together, constantly looking out to the audience, and it soon becomes apparent that we, the audience, are the mirror, the forth wall of this ballet studio. It is an idea so simple in its concept it appears inevitable but marks the genius of Jerome Robbins’ who captures the mood and quality of the Nijinsky original—the lazy sensuality, the romanticism, and the preening self indulgence of the characters, while completely reimagining the approach. In its own right, Robbins’ work is equally revolutionary as it invites us, the audience, to consciously become aware of dancers perspective and the confines of our space as performers.

Nijinsky’s 1913 Jeux was, in my opinion a troubled work that never quite reached the potential of the complex and remarkable Debussy score written for the ballet. Originally envisioned by Diaghilev himself, he asked Nijinsky to choreograph an illicit rendezvous between three people in the Parisian Gardens, Les Bois du Bologne.  It seems as if the ballet was designed to shock. Indeed when Debussy was given the libretto he initially balked until Diaghilev upped his fee. In the original Jeux, Nijinsky took this premise and placed it in the woods just outside a tennis court. A tennis ball rolls out onto the stage and one by one a young man and two women appear in search of their lost ball. As the ballet continues the threesome become more and more entangled until it is clear that they are all sexually attracted to one another and they depart together. There is a slightly sinister and voyeuristic feel about the work, but by all accounts, audiences of the day seemed unfazed and Jeux quickly fell into obscurity – overshadowed by the scandals of the overtly sexual aspects of “Faune” and earth shattering distortions of “Le Sacre.”

Having worked on a rather unsuccessful recreation of the original Jeux a number of years ago, I remained fascinated by the complex and lush score. I was intrigued by the libretto and wondered what 21st century audiences would make of the ballets provocative premise. Two years ago, I had been contemplating a modern day retelling of Jeux precisely when two things fell into my lap. First, The Joyce Theater approached Ballet West with an offer to appear in New York and include a new commission that would be underwritten by The Nureyev Foundation. And second, a very generous offer by the Utah Symphony and their Music Director Thierry Fisher, to collaborate on a new work. It was Thierry who suggested Jeux. He adored the music and wanted the Symphony to play it. When he proposed this, I shyly asked him if he was aware of the risqué libretto of the ballet and he assured me that he was. This gave me strength to move forward with, what I regarded as a social anthropological experiment. I immediately knew which choreographer to approach—Helen Pickett. Helen had created a beautiful ballet on Ballet West, But Never Doubt I Love, and she has had great success in more narrative works around the world. She and I discussed where we wanted to go with the work and she decided to place the ballet in modern day New York. She adjusted the libretto to have the three characters work together in an office and their flirtation and ultimate get together would build out of their friendship and knowledge of one another as people. The new Games is an exploration of the games people play and it follows the dips and dives of Debussy’s tricky score with fluid transitions and theatrics. Games has had the luxury of time.  Helen has been able to see it on stage and rethink aspects, so now as we make our Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theater debut with the ballet, it is a new and again revolutionary work in its own right.

In 2013, for the 100th anniversary of Nijinsky’s and Starvinsky’s ground breaking and riot inducing ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, I commissioned Ballet West’s Resident Choreographer, Nicolo Fonte,  to create a new version to this powerful and now revered Stravinsky score. The Nijinsky/ Stravinsky original was, from what we have ascertained, a pagan ritual that depicted the sacrifice of a woman to ensure the success of the harvest and the continuation of a healthy community. In spectacular colored costumes, the dancing was marked by heavy, flat footed, “turned–in” stomping visually arresting it did remain two dimensional.  Its extreme distortions and the overwhelming drive of the music became too much for the Paris ballet-goers of 1913 and the premiere caused a fury in France. Nicolo takes a completely different direction with his Rite of Spring. He sets the action in a strange and timeless world that could be prehistoric or could be in a post apocalyptic future. There is no formalized libretto, Nicolo takes his cues completely from the music, however, in and between the intense dancing from the large cast there is a young boy who seems to be searching for something, reaching to different women.  At the end of the ballet a woman grabs the boy and they dance, center stage, to a startling and surprise ending.  There are many different possible interpretations for this, the action of this new “Rite” but I see it as expressing the idea that the soul of a child finds its mother. Nicolo’s ballet is ultimately life affirming in a primordial way and subsequently also revolutionizing the ideas brought forth in the original ballet.

Now over 100 years later, it is hard for us to imagine the impact that Nijinsky’s ballets had on the audiences of the time.  He certainly had some of the greatest pieces of music from the early 20th Century to work with, and the libretti of these works were audacious to say the least but, like countless composers, visual artists, and leaders in any discipline, Nijinsky helped to usher in the future of ballet and dance.  In many cases the pupils have surpassed the teacher. But it’s fascinating to consider how alive our art form remains in the 21st century.  This is what Nijinsky was all about. This is what The Nijinsky Revolution is all about.