George Barbier’s Nijinsky

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An inevitable one this, given the amount of times that George Barbier’s work has been featured here. Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky was a series of prints published in 1913 when the dancer was at the height of his celebrity. All of Nijinsky’s major roles are represented although this isn’t quite the complete set. There did used to be a Japanese site with several galleries of Barbier’s early prints but this has now disappeared.

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Schéhérazade.

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Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

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Schéhérazade.

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L’oiseau de feu.

Continue reading “George Barbier’s Nijinsky”

The Rite of Spring and The Red Shoes

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The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine.

Emeric is often too easily accused of basing the principal male character of The Red Shoes on Serge Diaghilev, to which he replies: “There is something of Diaghilev, something of Alex Korda, something of Michael, and quite a little bit of me.”

Michael Powell, A Life in Movies (1986)

Despite Emeric Pressburger’s qualificatory comments, there’s a lot more of the Ballets Russes in Powell and Pressburger’s film of The Red Shoes (1948) than first meets the eye. Or so I discovered, since I’d known about the film via my ballet-obsessed mother for years before I’d even heard of Diaghilev or Stravinsky. The most obvious connection is the presence of Léonide Massine who took the leading male roles in Diaghilev’s company following the departure of Nijinsky. He also choreographed Parade, the ballet which featured an Erik Satie score and designs by Picasso. The fraught relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky forms the heart of The Red Shoes: Anton Walbrook’s impresario, Boris Lermontov, is the Diaghilev figure while the brilliant dancer who obsesses him, and for whom he creates the ballet of The Red Shoes, is Moira Shearer as Victoria Page. That the dancer happens to be a woman is a detail which makes the film “secretly gay”, as Tony Rayns once put it. Diaghilev and Nijinsky were lovers, and fell out when Nijinsky married; in The Red Shoes Lermontov demands that Vicky choose between a life of art or a life of marriage to composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring). She chooses love but ends up drawn back to art, with tragic consequences that mirror the Hans Christian Andersen story. That story, of course, ends with a young woman dancing herself to death after donning the fatal shoes, a dénouement that’s unavoidably reminiscent of The Rite of Spring.

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Anton Walbrook as Lermontov.

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?

Vicky: Why do you want to live?

Other parallels may be found if you look for them, notably the figure of Julian Craster who comes to Lermontov as a young and unknown composer just as Stravinsky did with Diaghilev. Craster’s music isn’t as radical as Stravinsky but The Red Shoes was already giving the audience of 1948 enough unapologetic Art with a capital “A” without dosing them with twelve-tone serialism. The film aims for the same combination of the arts as that achieved by Diaghilev, especially in the long and increasingly fantastic ballet sequence. This was another of Powell’s shots at what he called “a composed film” in which dramaturgy and music work to create something unique. The Red Shoes is a film that’s deadly serious about the importance of art, a rare thing in a medium which is so often in the hands of Philistines. In the past I’ve tended to favour other Powell and Pressburger films, probably because I’ve taken The Red Shoes for granted for so long. But the more I watch The Red Shoes the more it seems their greatest film, even without this wonderful train of associations. The recent restoration is out now on Blu-ray, and it looks astonishing for a film that’s over sixty years old.

Seeing as this week has been all about The Rite of Spring, here’s a few more centenary links:

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation for its 100th Anniversary
• George Benjamin on How Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has shaped 100 years of music
Strange Flowers visits the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring, 2001
The Rite of Spring, 1970
The Rite of Spring reconstructed

The Rite of Spring, 2001

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Now this one is fantastic… Angelin Preljoçaj’s modern dance interpretation is wildly energetic, and, after a century of the music becoming increasingly familiar, manages to return some of the shock value to the ballet. Preljoçaj dispenses with symbolism and brings the sexual nature of the material to the fore, with recurrent instances of coercion that will no doubt prove intolerable for some viewers. All one can say to that is that this is a ballet which has always been about primitive erotic rituals which culminate in a chosen sacrifice being forced to dance herself to death. (The third part of the ballet—Jeu du rapt—was bluntly translated on a recording I used to own as “Game of Rape”.) For the finale of Preljoçaj’s version the dancer (uncredited, I’m afraid) performs naked. The televised performance benefits a great deal by having a score courtesy of Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra thundering away in stereo. It’s a thrilling piece which shows that a century on The Rite of Spring has lost none of its power when carefully staged. Kudos to Ubuweb for turning up the goods once again.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring, 1970
The Rite of Spring reconstructed

The Rite of Spring, 1970

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Another film of the ballet that’s useful as a comparison to the later reconstruction. Maurice Béjart’s Ballet du XXe Siècle show how the music might be interpreted if the original ballet is pretty much discarded. The choreography is by Béjart himself, and for me creates a mixed impression. Women are wholly absent from the first half despite the ballet being about the spring rituals between groups of young men and women. In place of Nijinsky’s stamping crowd there’s a great deal of hopping around which runs the risk of looking more comical than pagan. The second half works better when the company creates a shifting arrangement of Busby Berkeley-like groupings. In place of the ceremonial sacrifice at the end we have some erotic mime which was no doubt advanced for 1970 but which packs less of a punch than the strange and terrible finale of the Joffrey performance. Where the original ballet still seems fresh, the 1970 version now appears rather dated. The whole thing is available for viewing at Ubuweb.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
The Rite of Spring reconstructed

The Rite of Spring reconstructed

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This week sees the centenary of the first performance by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Everyone is familiar with the details of that momentous occasion, and Stravinsky’s score is probably performed more frequently today than any of his other works. Less familiar is the nature of the ballet which caused so much outrage. A combination of the hectic schedule of the Ballets Russes and the loss of choreographer Nijinsky a few months later meant that the choreography was never properly transcribed. This caused problems for subsequent revivals, and the only reason we have an idea of the radical nature of the ballet is thanks to a decade of research by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, a pair of cultural archaeologists who’ve specialised in reviving ballets. Hodson and Archer scoured archives looking for details of Nicholas Roerich’s costumes, and also traced surviving members of the 1913 company in order to verify their choreographic researches.

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The performance here is a recording of the Joffrey Ballet’s staging of Hodson and Archer’s reconstruction from the late 1980s. I first saw this in 1989 and was aghast at how strange and savage the dancing is compared to classical ballet. Hodson and Archer have since amended some of the performance details but there’s more than enough in this staging to convey why the ballet was so threatening and disturbing to the audience in 1913. Even today, after decades of modern dance it looks surprisingly crude with its dancers stamping their way across the stage. I was also thrilled to see the restoration of Nicholas Roerich’s costumes and decor. In addition to giving the ballet its distinctive look, Roerich contributed the pagan dramaturgy, something that tends to be overlooked when so many big names are competing for attention. (There’s more about Roerich and his involvement with the Rite here.) I always enjoy the way Roerich provides a link between this favourite ballet and the writings of HP Lovecraft. I’ve no idea what Lovecraft would have made of The Rite of Spring but he had a lot of time for Roerich’s paintings, and refers to them in At the Mountains of Madness.

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The recording linked here is annoyingly split into three parts (and the soundtrack is hissy mono) but if you’ve any interest in the original ballet it really needs to be seen.

The Rite of Spring: part one | part two | part three

Previously on { feuilleton }
Vaslav Nijinsky by Paul Iribe
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky