The Art of Nijinsky/Introduction

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The last edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1910, contains an excellent little essay on the Ballet, which ends, after bewailing the modern degeneracy of the art, with these ill-omened words:

"It seems unlikely that we shall see any revival of the best period and style of dancing until a higher standard of grace and manners becomes fashionable in society. Only in an atmosphere of ceremony, courtesy, and chivalry can the dance maintain itself in perfection."

Well, it is a dangerous thing to be a prophet; and that this particular prophet has proved most happily at fault will be plain to everyone. The passage is quoted here, however, not at all for the simple pleasure of refuting it, but rather because it aptly indicates some of those more than ordinary difficulties which lie in wait for any English critic of the Russian Ballet. For it must be remembered that our author of the Encyclopædia was hardly, if at all, behind the times in which he wrote. M. Diaghilew's company did not make its first appearance in London till the summer of 1911, and though before then there had been considerable evidence of a revival in individual dancing, concerted dancing on a definite theme (which we may take as a practical definition of the ballet) had seldom reached a lower stage of insignificance. In those days, few even of the best informed among the critics were aware of what was going on in Russia, and it is scarcely strange that London's first experience of the Russian Ballet took the majority of us utterly by surprise.

During the last few years a mighty revolution has had to be worked in our ideas concerning the whole art of the dance. And this not only as regards the dances of the ballroom. In the theatre the change has been no less striking, and we have found ourselves in the position of being forced to develop a completely fresh set of æsthetic standards so as to keep pace with the development of a tradition which for us, previously, had been little more than a dead and obsolete form. In this task we have been obliged to proceed mainly by the light of nature. There have been few to guide us, and for once the critics, both amateur and professional, have found themselves in the same galley.

I know, of course, that in the interval which separates us from the date, say, of that article in the Encyclopædia, a good deal has been written on the subject of the ballet and its revival. We have had, for instance, Mr. Crawford Flitch's able volume on Modern Dancing and Dancers, to which I hereby declare a conspicuous and inevitable debt. But not so far, perhaps, has the subject found a really adequate treatment,[1] and, in the absence of such treatment, all hasty conclusions will be wise to acknowledge the limits within which they have been arrived at. As for the present book, it can make no claim whatever to provide a detailed and reasoned account of the Russian Ballet, or yet of the great artist and dancer whose name is its ornament. Its character will be that of a purely personal impression, supported, I hope, by some wider considerations, but still essentially an impression, and with the value of an impression rather than of a work of studied criticism.

In spite of obvious shortcomings, there is something to be said for such a method. For dancing is one of those arts which least repay too dry an exposition. In this it is like music, and most unlike the monumental arts of sculpture, painting, literature, which, in virtue of their very persistence, have the less claim to be recorded. For we can read the book, or see the picture for ourselves, and go to criticism for information or sound judgment rather than for a verbal réchauffée of an accessible and authentic charm. But in an art which perishes, the mere impression of an observer, however inadequate, may be of value. The written word survives; so that a Vestris dances again in the most fatuous praise of his contemporaries, while even that famous picture in prose by Walter Pater acquires a fresh and thrilling meaning since "Mona Lisa" has vanished from the Louvre.

The aim of this essay, then, is, first and foremost, to preserve an impression. As to its manner, I need only forestall, if it may be, one possible objection. "You call your book," someone might say, "The Art of Nijinsky. Very well. But there are pages and pages occupied with quite extraneous things. . . . We thought to find the appreciation of an artistic personality, and you give us irrelevant views on the art of the ballet as a whole!"

The fact is, of course, that it would be absurd to attempt the appreciation of an art like Nijinsky's by any method that excluded some treatment, at least, of the medium in which that art displays itself. This is true, certainly, of the art of every dancer, but in the present case especially so; if only because Nijinsky has chosen to throw in his lot with that movement in the modern theatre which is antagonistic to anything like an undue emphasis on the talent of the individual.

That the whole is greater than the part is a hard precept for mime or dancer who happens to be blessed with personality. The temptation to dominate is strong. But he who will accept and act upon this principle is sure of his reward; for so he will participate in a greatness that is greater even than his own—the supreme greatness of an impersonal work of art. Now, it is a chief glory of the Russian Ballet that it has not only afforded a perfect medium of expression to one of the most outstanding geniuses of the modern stage, but that it has also found in that genius an aptitude for subordination which is among the rarest and finest virtues an artist of the theatre can possess.

It is for this reason that our treatment of the art of Nijinsky must needs go further than a consideration of its purely individual aspect. To do less would be unjust to various factors which contribute to the central effect. It would also be unjust to Nijinsky himself, whose method shows such a perfect sense of the action and interaction of elements as complex as they are mutually dependent.

  1. I refer only to English books. But mention must be made of the expert and sumptuous volume by the Russian critic, Svétlow, which may now be obtained in the French version of M. Calvocoressi under the title of Le Ballet Contemporain.