The Art of Nijinsky/The Ballets
At the end of the book will be found a complete list of the ballets performed in England in which Nijinsky himself has taken part. Here we deal, rather more fully, with nine typical ballets, being those which Miss Dorothy Mullock has chosen as subjects for her pictures.
This ballet may be fitly taken first and by way of introduction to those which follow, since it stands rather by itself—neither definitely dramatic nor merely illustrative of its musical accompaniment. In spirit it belongs to that older kind of
Le Lac des Cygnes
The Swans of the Swan lake were enchanted birds who danced, in the form of white maidens, by moonlight at the water's edge. A young prince of the realm is hunting by the lake, and half in jest, half in earnest, pursues and takes captive the queen of the Swan-maidens, He woos her, but she escapes and flies off to the lake again, leaving him to go home again disconsolate. There presently, in the palace of his fathers, it is the day of the young prince's betrothal. Great celebrations are being held. A splendid company is assembled, and they perform pompous and brilliant dances. The prince dances too, more brilliantly than them all. But still he is sick at heart, distracted by the thought of the Swan-queen. For a beauteous stranger has been introduced, and seeing her he experiences a second time that fond and desperate longing he had felt by the side of the Swan lake. At length he brings himself to dance with the strange lady. New life courses through his veins. He is spurred on to greater and greater feats, to more and more impossible figures. He leaps high in the air, and the company stands amazed. This is not dancing, they whisper, but black magic. Magic indeed. . . . For suddenly, in a thunderous spell of darkness, the strange lady, the Swan-queen, disappears; and the last tableau shows us the shore of the lake again, and the young prince, hot in pursuit, but by an inch too late. . . . For there is nothing now but a flock of white swans, vanishing over the water.
Nijinsky, of course, impersonates the prince—the slim and debonair young prince of the fairy tale. In the first scene of eager reconnaissance, and in the final tragic tableau by the water-side, we have his genius for pantomime splendidly exhibited. While, in the middle scene—the dance and courtly festival—he demonstrates the full resources of his virtuosity, performing the rarest and most difficult figures with the ease that can belong to no one but the born technician. In some other ballets Nijinsky's style becomes so free and unconventional that one is tempted to forget the years of study out of which it has evolved. But his supremacy in this ballet of Le Lac des Cygnes is perfect proof, if such be needed, that Nijinsky has undergone and mastered every phase of training in the most orthodox and traditional modes of his art.
To-day Le Lac des Cygnes survives alone in the Diaghilew repertoire to indicate what Russian ballet was like in the days of the great Petipa. For the choreography and the general arrangement of the dances are in the tradition of that master, and the music is Tschaikovsky's—quite "the latest thing," no doubt, at the time when the ballet was first produced. To some of us now it may all seem a trifle old-fashioned; but those who are interested to see the art of dancing in its pure and classic form, could wish for no more typical display. Le Lac des Cygnes triumphantly succeeds in being what it sets out to be, and it would be a thousand pities if later and more exotic flavours were to dull our palate for such wholesome and, withal, such magnificent fare.
LE PAVILLON D'ARMIDE
One of the earlier productions of M. Fokine, Armide, forms an important link with such traditional ballets as Le Lac des Cygnes and the other productions of Petipa.
As originally produced it included a prologue and an epilogue, with so much genuine plot in them as to supply the action of the ballet with an interesting raison d'être. There was the old story of the tired traveller and the insinuating stranger, and the grateful offer of a lodging for the night. And then, after the dream, which was the ballet, the scene of awakening and sinister disillusion. As recently performed, however, this pantomime setting has been clipped away, with the result that certain episodes in the ballet have lost something of their point. But the natural quality of the thing is untouched, and Armide still remains perhaps the most complete, as it is certainly the most luxuriant, example of conventional ballet-dancing which the Russians have shown us.
There are marvellous moments all through. One of them comes when Nijinsky makes his first and curiously modest entry into that wonderful scene of pink and green and blue, that scene which reminds one, in its luscious colouring, of all the beautiful good things to eat in the world. Truly, the effect would be sugary if it were not so cool, strident if not so infinitely modulated; and if there be some who have actually found it so, I can only answer that they have not seen it through my eyes. As to Nijinsky himself, there can hardly be two opinions. His presentment of Armide's
Le Pavillon d'Armide
The court of Armide, one believes, is part of a definite and settled polity, with its own laws, its own customs, and its own business from day to day. It is more objective in feeling than the scene of any other of the Russian ballets—less a dream than a vision, so that when it comes to an end we feel that it is ourselves that are losing touch with reality rather than that what appeared as reality is now proving itself an illusion.
The secret of this effect is twofold. Partly it lies in the exquisite purity of convention which the ballet retains throughout, partly in the conviction of aloofness which Nijinsky brings to his rendering of the part of Armide's slave. He never forgets for a moment where and what he is, and though, as we have hinted, Armide is first and foremost a choreographic ballet, Nijinsky has also made of it a splendid occasion for the practice of his faculty for imaginative characterisation.
This, I think, explains the fact that one can return to the Pavillon d Armide time after time, and with a sense of never-failing refreshment. For the art of Nijinsky has made one free of a strange country, where dancing and simple melodies of music are the natural language of the soul, the perfect expression of an essential and peculiar joy.
"Music," said Noverre, "is to dancing what words are to music—a simile which means nothing except that dance music is, or ought to be, the written poem which determines the movements and the action of the dancer." And truly the artist of the ballet has always been in debt to the musician, while there have been countless efforts actually to interpret musical compositions through the medium of the dance. In no instance, however—so far, at least, as I am aware—has the effort been so elaborate and at the same time so successful as in this ballet of M. Fokine's, set to the music of Schumann. For though we find in Les Sylphides a parallel attempt to visualise music, scarcely there does the music hold its own with the stage picture, and it is only now and then that the fusion between action and music becomes complete. In Carnaval the fusion is complete all through.
The reason is, probably, that though Le Carnaval was written with no earthly idea as to its suitability for the framework of a ballet, yet theme by theme the composer had in his mind's eye definite images which were intrinsically of such a kind as could be well expressed in terms of pantomime.
Le Carnaval is a work of Schumann's early years, and in these "Scènes Mignonnes," as he described them, there is expressed all the gay and witty self-consciousness of a quite young man. The ideas at the back of this music are not, then, purely musical ones, but the various themes are expressive of a company of fantastic figures, all well-known personages translated into a private world of whimsy which Schumann had constructed for his own amusement and convenience. Here were a set of characters ready made for the ballet—Florestan and Eusebius (the one representing a stormy, the other a dreamy side of Schumann's temperament), Pierrot, Harlequin, Papillon, Columbine, Chiarina, and the rest—the most adorable collection of puppets, tender, grave and gay, that have ever been gathered together on a stage.
The method of the ballet's action is simple enough. The music is left to tell the story, and, punctual to the comencement of every theme, the appropriate character comes flitting on to the stage, to dance its little pas and then flit off again to make way for the next. The stage setting is as empty and dignified as a musical stave, and the little figures hurry across it, singly or in groups, almost like musical notation come to life and colour. This means that the music is never strained for a moment to carry action of a greater concrete significance than itself; and we can both hear and see at the same moment, with no troublesome endeavour to combine or distinguish our sensations.
Nijinsky's Harlequin is, of course, an unforgettable figure: not at all the blustering, magnificent Harlequin of Italian comedy, but a sly fellow, slickly insinuating, naughtily intimate. He is always whispering subtle secrets to Columbine, and is saved from viciousness only by his
Thus one might render very roughly into English those verses of Théophile Gautier which have suggested this beautiful little ballet of Le Spectre de la Rose. And here it is just worth noting that Gautier's poem was written in the year 1837, and that the ballet, as we see it to-day, seems to distil the very finest essence of that particular quality of sentiment which we call Early Victorian.
But more than this, Le Spectre de la Rose is a vision of youth—la Jeunesse—not wild, passionate, but virgin youth, just learning to be troubled with its first wonderful dream. Only in an atmosphere of some moral severity, one feels, could this natural impulse achieve so chaste and at the same time so fervent an awakening. And one rightly knows that love, with this young girl come back from the ball to her little white and blue bedroom, is something that she would never dare to discuss, scarce even think of, but only feel, now and again, in a little trembling gust of sensibility. All this and more, far more, has Mme. Karsavina conveyed in her unequalled performance. And Nijinsky . . .
He truly shows us the very heart of a red rose. For so quiet and tender is his dancing, so exquisitely adapted to the theme, that he becomes the very being he would portray, a spirit rather than a man, a fairy thing and as light as a waft of perfume.
Technically, Le Spectre de la Rose is most interesting for the delicate economy of the means employed. Notice also that the personalities of the dancers are but slightly insisted on, and that the agreement between them is conceived as being so perfect that one is frequently aware of little more than the rhythm in which both are fused. The steps of the dance, too, are appropriately simple, like the scenery, and like the music of Weber's delicious "Invitation."
A friend of mine, returning home from a performance of Les Sylphides sat down while the memory of what he had seen was still fresh, to record if he could the varied evolutions of the ballet in a series of algebraical symbols. He told me that he was astonished at the intricate beauty of the resulting ratios, and boasted that a perusal of his page of formulæ gave him a pleasure that was almost as great as that which he had experienced while sitting at ease in his seat at Covent Garden. Personally, I would not care to make a similar experiment; yet I do recognise in dancing of a certain kind just that perfectness of symmetry which, it may be, can most fitly be translated into the medium of mathematics, and for which in words, at any rate, can be found no possible equivalent.
In a figure more natural to one's own mode of thought, let me describe Les Sylphides as a spiritual ballet—a ballet, that is to say, which insists very little on qualities of human flesh and blood but demands the exercise of mind, soul, spirit, or whatever principle you will that is furthest removed from the appetites of sense. For certainly the beauty of Les Sylphides has little to do with the body, and in this respect partakes essentially of the nature of music, although as an actual visualisation of music (in the sense that Carnaval is such) it cannot be taken so very seriously. The less one thinks about Chopin, in fact, the more will one enjoy Les Sylphides. For Chopin's is the music of the velvet warmth of summer nights, and there is something sweet and scented in the air that is the breath of his dim, romantic world. But the country of Les Sylphides is cold and clear and fragile, a land of frozen moonlight, which, if you tried to reach it, would shimmer out into a thousand spangles at the first touch of your fingertips.
As a ballet Les Sylphides is perfectly simple, perfectly refined. The long, deep-waisted skirts of the dancers are substantially the same as those worn in the middle of the last century by Grisi, Fanny Elssler, or Taglioni. And there is nothing esoteric in the dancing; only the genius of a pure tradition, perfected and conserved. Nijinsky, of course, in his rich, black surcoat, stands out very prominent among the white ranks of the sylphides whom it is his happy task to shepherd. His dancing, too, is as completely true to the orthodox tradition as is theirs, and as spiritual. A mere wisp of wavering grace he seems, the very soul of that rhythm which sways his lovely comrades, wafting them this way, that way, to and fro, like puffs of swansdown.
In a ballet like this one hesitates to pick out any single feature for particular praise. But mention must be made of one small point which, in itself trivial, offers so excellent an example of the beautiful finish which Nijinsky carries even into the smallest details.
I refer to the exit at the end of his solo dance to the Mazurka. Do you remember how he doesn't simply walk or leap off into the wings, but stands quite still for a moment, and then, as if in answer to the summons of some attendant spirit, moves away, his face all glowing with the ecstasy of anticipation?
This always seems to me an inspired moment. And evidently it is by some such exquisite little touches that the Russians achieve that sense of imaginative conviction which so distinguishes their style.
This is a ballet quite different in type from those we have been considering. Its aim is essentially dramatic, and everything about it is designed to lead up to a single and thrilling climax. From the first brazen flourish of the overture one is aware that dread and terrible things are going to happen—though it is also this very music of the overture that gives the romantic touch to an atmosphere which would be otherwise almost unbearable.
"The scene," to quote for once from the official programme, "is the harem of Shahriar's palace. The fairest and best-beloved of his wives crouches by the monarch's side, and to engage his thoughts the chief eunuch summons before him three odalisques, who dance languorously. But Shahriar's mood is sinister, and he refuses to be diverted. For by his side is his younger brother, who has hinted the likelihood of infidelity and wickedness in his household. The brother has suggested their departure on a make-believe hunting party, to be followed by an unexpected return to the harem. Shahriar will try the brother's plan. He calls for armour and weapons, and the two royal brothers ceremoniously depart. The sound of the hunting-horns dies away. The women listen; the coast is clear; and they now assail the chief eunuch in an excited, fluttering crowd. He, doubting and fearing, yields to their demands; and with the great keys at his belt opens the doors in the wall, whence emerge, some in copper and some in silver garb, a band of negro slaves, the harem-ladies' secret lovers. From the central door comes, clad in cloth of gold, the dark youth
This is Nijinsky, and from the moment of his entrance the drama takes on to itself a new and terrible meaning. The dark youth flickers here and there among the mazy crowd of slaves, hungry for the faithless wife of the sultan—she whose flesh also is parched and dry for the touch of his. He finds her soon, and his lecherous hands play over and over her body with a purpose too subtle, it seems, to take and hold her once and for all. And presently he leaves her, threading his way in and out of the passionate dancers, to lie at last on a soft cushion, like a flame of lust that smoulders and sinks but never dies. Now he has joined the orgy again. See him leap in the air, no man but a devil, the foul and heady essence that can spur these bodies of men and women to forget that they are human, and to lose themselves horribly in the last and frenzied abandonment of desire. Round him and around they swirl and swarm like drunken bees. Thank God! you say, when suddenly the circle dissipates, disintegrates before your eyes, and it is the hour of judgment.
Seen for the first time, Scheherazade is one of the most startling of the ballets. The effect of the decoration, the costumes, the music, is intensely moving, while the dancing is only another instance of that wonderful flexibility of style which renders the Russian ballet so perfect an instrument for the expression of almost every phase of feeling. But on a second visit, or a third, this fine effect seems hardly maintained. Individual factors in the production, like the dancing of Nijinsky and the music, keep of course their virtue; but as a whole the drama wears a little thin, and one becomes uneasily conscious of the ugliness that lies—it cannot be gainsayed—beneath the splendour and the glitter.
Scheherazade, like the less important ballet of Thamar, is concerned, you see, to present a conventionally romantic picture of oriental sensuality. Now, this is a very legitimate thing to do. But whereas Thamar is content to handle the theme in a wholly simple and unmoral manner, Scheherazade includes a deliberate appeal to the human sense of shame which, however good as morality, is surely bad as art. For the sense of shame is not compatible with æsthetic satisfaction, nor do I think that its excitement, in a work of art, would be enjoyed by a society more delicate-minded than our own.
The miraculous automaton has often been used as a subject for drama, and long before the Russians came, Adeline Genée had captivated London with the doll-ballet of Coppélia. Such a theme must certainly be attractive to any dancer who has once mastered the free and graceful rhythms of natural life, inviting as it does to the control and exercise of a whole new range of attitude and movement. From the spectator's point of view there is also an amusing element of the bizarre in every such production, for it is almost as curious to watch a human being pretend to be a machine as it is to see a machine pretending to be human. So, at any rate, was the case in Coppélia.
But in this ballet of Pétrouchka the interest is more subtle. The authors have delved deep, essaying to reveal as it were the very psychology of the inanimate, and to suggest some kind of soul life as existing in the bodies of mere marionettes. So, all those scenes which take place in the big box-like rooms behind the showman's tent, where the dolls are put away, are marked by an atmosphere of emotion as poignant as it is unreal. And they are full, too, of a strange subhuman beauty.
Now, it is Nijinsky's part to portray the dead mechanism of a doll, quickened to feverish life by jealousy. The beautiful lady-doll, you see, has bestowed her favours on a lusty blackamoor. What then can poor Pétrouchka do? He is weak, a sort of puppet Pierrot. So there's nothing left for him but to try and emulate his rival's fascination. And this he does in a dance whose frenzied pathos supplies, oddly enough, the most purely human touch in the entire Russian repertoire. It is Nijinsky's chance, and he makes the most of it, For the rest of the mimic drama is largely independent of his genius. Which reminds one of the fact that although nobody can dominate a scene like Nijinsky, he is capable at the same time of the most exquisite self-restraint. Thus his Pétrouchka is never out of the picture by the least breadth of a hair; and if there were any need to accord individual honours they would fall perhaps as reasonably to Karsavina, for her lovely horn-dance is one of the most memorable things in this ballet.
Pétrouchka however, from beginning to end, is full of a beauty as surprising as it is diverse. We have a matchless scene of pure pantomimic acting. The musical setting has won the praise of those most qualified to form opinion, while the theme of the ballet is one which offers unusual stimulus to the imagination and intellectual sympathy of the audience. Judged as a complete whole, Pétrouchka still seems to me a little disappointing. Here and there the convention is overstrained, and one is often brought up too sharply by that danger which must always be lurking when the same method of pantomimic representation is applied to characters both human and non-human. The dolls by themselves behave most properly. And the crowd of Russian peasants by itself is quite convincing. But when the two kinds mingle together the effect becomes unsatisfying. For the essential difference between either mode of being is not sufficiently pronounced—cannot be, by the very convention of pantomime. And this is especially unfortunate when, as here, the whole meaning of the drama is bound up with the integrity of this differentiation.
But, after all, one is inclined to forget such shortcomings if only for the sake of that wonderful episode at the end, where slain Pétrouchka's spirit leans starkly over the wooden parapet of the booth, and sends the wretched showman gibbering off in horror, a tragic and unforgettable embodiment of the ghost of a doll.
London has lately witnessed several attempts, more or less successful, at rendering the Greek spirit on the stage. There have been, for instance, performances of Prof. Murray's translations of Euripides, with a chorus trained in odd attitudes by Miss Margaret Morris. It would seem that the aim has been, in these choruses, to copy exactly images from the antique, images of woe, with long despairing arms and a monotonous faculty of lamentation borrowed from Ireland. Now and then we have caught at a gesture and exclaimed, "That's very like!" till the moment has passed, and we have seen only a woman, scantily clothed, and in a strange posture.
In spite of good intent, this mode of production has failed on the visual side, for the reason, no doubt, that models taken from the two-dimensional surface of old vases and bas-reliefs were transferred wholesale to a three-dimensional stage, thus abandoning the plastic convention which, on urn or frieze, was so beautifully adapted to the effect desired. Some dances of Isadora Duncan showed a truer feeling for just how much of the Grecian plastic manner could be rightly transferred from the flat to the round. But on a large scale it has been left for Nijinsky to imagine a classic scene which is equally vital in feeling and true to the tradition on which it is founded.
I am quite aware that the actual process of change from one attitude to another has in this ballet been the subject of criticism. The Greek convention, it is said, was such as to suggest movement; and to make use of it in actual combination with movement is an artistic solecism. Better a series of static scenes or tableaux than this hybrid lapse from one static pose into another. Such argument, however, appears to be a little on the danger side of the pedantic, if only because the idea behind this ballet is
Now, Mr. Maurice Hewlett, who knows more than most of us about the psychology of fauns and fairies, has explored the difference between the human kind and the fairy in words which are beautifully relevant to the subject-matter of this Prélude. "A comparison of the fairy kind," he writes, "with human beings is never successful, because into our images of human beings we always impart self-consciousness. They know what they are doing. Fairies do not. . . . Human creatures, I think, know what they are doing only too well, because performance never agrees with desire. But with fairies, desire to do and performance are instinctive and simultaneous. If they think, they think in action, and in this they are far more like animals than human creatures."
How well Nijinsky has realised some such conception will be plain to anyone who has seen the Prélude. For quite apart from the beauty and the interest of the thing as a spectacle, his impersonation of a being so like us in the unspoken motives of its nature, so different in the instant activities of its life, is, to say the least of it, an astonishing achievement. This, indeed, is not simply ballet-dancing in a new mode. It is acting, and as subtle a piece of acting as has ever graced the stage of a theatre. For Nijinsky's is undoubtedly the faun of the poet's imagination; a type of the primal force of nature, and of the lusty instinct which is the fount of life.
It's after dinner, in summer time, in the garden—such a quaint old garden, with little flower-beds set about like cheques on a board. It is very quiet in the garden, with that midsummer quiet that is half music, half silence. Perhaps we shall hear nightingales.
But no. To-night there's another kind of music—Ping, pang, twong—the music of the to-and-fro of tennis balls. Those lively young people must be playing up on the lawn by the Château—you know the game—the kind you play with red rackets and balls as big as melons. And actually here one comes! A great white india-rubber thing, bouncing heavily over the hedge there. It's out of bounds, and they are sure to come to look for it soon, disturbing the solitude. Yes, I thought so. For here is our young friend, in the white flannels and the scarlet tie. What a jump! He's down the bank like a streak of lightning! But an instant too late. For the big white ball has eluded him, and off he goes, by the other path, very much on the wrong scent.
And now, what's this? Why, I do believe it's the young man's playfellows coming to help him find the ball. They must have chosen the easy way through the shrubbery. Here they are, anyway, tripping into the garden, happily, prettily, all in white, with their short white skirts and stockings, and their white tennis shoes and white, tight jerseys. They are enjoying themselves, ça se voit. It was such fun playing tennis by moonlight, and really, you know, this is quite a little adventure, coming down into the mysterious flower-garden after ten o'clock, all alone, to look for a lost ball. . . .
For a while they search and search away among the flower-beds—but find nothing. And after all, what does it matter? There are plenty of other balls in that cardboard box under the hammock on the lawn. Besides, the moon's so wonderfully bright to-night, and it makes one feel so queer, not like a real person at all, more like a nymph, or a fairy, or a sort of doll, or . . . But what was that? Only Scarlet-tie. He too has evidently given up the search; thinking, I suppose, that there are things far better worth the looking for, on a night like this, than a silly old india-rubber ball.
So he stands for a moment, watching the two girls. Then this way, that way, he begins to dance about among the flower-beds. This way, that way, the girls dance too, now chased, now chasing, now chased again. Look, he has caught her at last. No, it's the other one. And what need to be coy at long past ten o'clock of a moonlight night in a garden?
Yet it's not for her alone that the moon's at the full to-night. Her friend, I can't believe that she came out into the garden just to play gooseberry? For a moment, indeed, it looks like a case of Two's company; but Scarlet-tie is a good fellow, he means to play the game, and knows, besides, that a proverb like that could have been invented by none but the veriest amateur in flirtation.
Still, amitié à trois, even on a moonlight night, is a risky business. So easily over the border line it slips from jest to earnest. Scarlet-tie, it seems, has gone too far; and now there are frowns, stampings of white tennis shoes, averted eyes. But he didn't mean it. Oh no. It was nothing but fun, you see. Won't they kiss and be friends?
So that's all right, and "Come for a romp," cries Scarlet-tie. "I'll cut you a caper!" And they fall to the dance again, leaping and dancing over and in and out of the flower-beds. Till at last, heated and breathless, they sink, the three of them, silently to the ground. A dear and curly head is pillowed trustingly on each of Scarlet-tie's broad shoulders. So comfy, they might have lain there for ever. …
But all at once, out of nowhere, flop! A great white ball comes bounding and bouncing into the midst of them. They jump up, frightened, suddenly self-conscious. What was it? Something—someone?
Well, obviously there's only one thing to do now. And before you can count three, the garden is empty.
Only the big white india-rubber ball rolls lazily back down stage to settle itself somewhere, at last, among the footlights.