The Art of Nijinsky/The New Phase

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In art, as in almost every sphere of human life, a deadly war is waged by each successive generation round the traditional legacies of its predecessor. In this warfare the odds are always heavily in favour of the assailant. Only that tradition which carries the seed of young vitality can persist. For it is obvious that tradition needs for its complete process not only the faculty of handing down, but also the grace of being received, so that we may almost take it as an axiom that the worth of any tradition is nicely proportionate to its ability to attract the allegiance, or at least the active interest, of the most important individuals of the new generation.

Oddly enough, the said important individuals are often just those who apparently owe least to what has gone before. The humdrum student follows his teacher with all the reverence that is fit. But your dominant force is always something of an anarchist. Whence arises that disrepute in which tradition is held by the coteries who are usually too prone to be led away by the false glamour of appearance or their own conceit.

As a matter of fact, if a novel work of art possesses any qualities of real virtue, tradition, we may be sure, is at the bottom of it. For tradition can act very subtly, so subtly that its influence may long remain undetected, and then at last be only generally perceived through the revealing perspective of time. This is the reason why the mere layman is always ready to be surprised at strangeness, whereas the professional, who can detect the ever-exquisite relation of effect and cause, is seldom astonished, never long at a loss.

In the sphere of science, for instance, the sudden discovery of an X-ray, or the first flight of an aeroplane, sends a thrill of wonder through every honest reader of his morning's newspaper. But do you think that the man behind the scenes is so easily moved? Of course not. For to him the discovery is a triumph perhaps, but not an unexpected triumph, and never anything more marvellous than the success which crowns a long series of experiments, begun and continued, or naturally evolving to a particular end. And in art it is just the same.

Take such a movement as that which is now loosely but conveniently known as Post-Impressionism. Here is a thing which has proved sufficiently puzzling to the ordinary man. He cannot place it, cannot understand it at all. At first he laughs. Then maybe frowns. Till at length, obliged at any rate to go through the semblance of making up his mind, he brands the whole affair as perverse, ridiculous, the product of minds that have lost their bearings, and are wandering witless and rudderless on uncharted seas. And yet to those who are accustomed to a more critical view of painting, this same Post-Impressionism offers no such difficulties. Whether they approve of it or disapprove, they are not deceived into mistaking it for a monster. For however shocking at the first glance, it quickly becomes evident to their perception as a genuine movement whose antecedents are clearly traceable through Manet to Ingres and the whole régime of the classical art of France.

Truth is that there's no such thing as a complete novelty either in life or in the arts. Novelty may, indeed, be sought after; but if it is attained, it is only as an intellectual freak (like Futurism), not as an instance of organic growth. And growth is all that matters. And for growth, tradition in some form or other is the first essential. For tradition, you see, is only another name for that principle of continuity without which the very idea of growth—let alone progress—is impossible.

Now, the right functioning of tradition has never, perhaps, been more perfectly exemplified than in the case of the Russian Ballet which, greeted here on its first appearance as something absolutely new, soon transpired to be the culmination of a long development which linked together in one long process the most seemingly extravagant novelties with the beginnings of modern ballet in the eighteenth century. I have already tried to suggest the main steps in this development up to the time of M. Fokine's supremacy as producer to the Diaghilew ballet. It remains to chronicle the sudden side-track which the ballet has taken since then as exemplified in the three new ballets for which Nijinsky is directly responsible: L'Après-Midi d'un Faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du Printemps.

Consider the repertoire of the Russian Ballet as it existed previously to the first production of Faune in the autumn of 1912. Roughly, the ballets then in performance might be divided into three groups—the epic, the atmospheric, and the dramatic. In groups 1 and 2 we had ballets like Le Pavilion d'Armide, Le Carnaval, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose; in group 3, ballets like Scheherazade, Cléopatre, and Thamar, all of which showed a definite trend towards dramatic emphasis as well as a preoccupation with that sort of agonised sensuality which one associates with the German and somewhat hectic imagination of Prof. Reinhardt. Some of M. Fokine's finest creations were the result of this influence, yet it was soon clear that in the long run dramatic intensity could only be maintained at the expense of a weakening in the choreographic interest; and such weakening in fact was very noticeable in Thamar, and still more so in the later ballet of Le Dieu Bleu. There were people, in fact, who began to be suspicious of further development on these lines, fearing that it would prove harmful to the pure spirit of Russian dancing. And, after all, in any ballet the dance is the thing, so that an influence which tends to obliterate its essential importance is naturally to be deplored. Nevertheless, for a time, the pantomimic tendency seemed to offer the only possible path of progress, and that a new outlet was found for the ballet on legitimately choreographic lines, must be laid very largely to the credit of Nijinsky.

Let us, though, guard against the mistaken belief that the new idea came bubbling out of Nijinsky's mind entirely unrelated to what was being thought and done by his contemporaries. This new phase of ballet-dancing, for all its power to shock or amuse a certain section of the public, here and in Paris, is no isolated venture standing by itself and destined to solitary success or lonely failure. Rather is it an instance of a widespread tendency which has been manifest of late in almost every department of art—a tendency of reaction against the complex achievement of a self-conscious age. For without implying that Nijinsky's art is derived in any essential respect from Post-Impressionism, it is yet not irrelevant to record the fact of Nijinsky's ardent admiration for the work of Paul Gauguin, or to mention the undoubted influence of the same master upon the style of stage-setting adopted in Jeux and Le Sacre du Printemps.

But even more noticeably than the new school of painting has that of music been a source of inspiration to Nijinsky, and in this connection two composers, Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, stand out for special reference. Of the two, Stravinsky, the young Russian, was first in the field, his relation with the Russian Ballet dating from the period of l'Oiseau de Feu, an old-fashioned fairy-tale ballet, endowed with an exotic air, however, by reason of its very modern musical setting. In this music was the germ of a new attitude towards the ballet, a germ which in Pétrouchka began actually to bear fruit. For sheer pantomime as much of it was, Pétrouchka showed, here and there, a most significant reliance on purely choreographic gesture—a reliance which was only made possible by certain definite qualities in the musical accompaniment.

What these qualities were it may be hard to indicate, but anyone who has heard the music will remember its vivid intimacy of feeling, its freedom from formality, its utter abandonment of the conventional means of climax. Stravinsky makes no attempt to strike the hearer into an

Pétrouchka - The Art of Nijinsky.jpg
attitude of surprise. His most daring effects are introduced quite informally and by the way (e.g. the barrel-organ in Pétrouchka), and there is always a complete absence from his style of musical rhetoric. So his music achieves its purpose almost unawares, insinuates itself into your attention rather than commands it, and relies for its effect on severity of simplification and on a sort of winning trustfulness that the meaning of the work is sufficiently interesting to dispense with the trappings of sentiment or artificial thrill.

Just this might be said with equal truth of Nijinsky's choreographic innovations which have shown us dancing stripped of its conventional attributes, a thing of accent rather than of rhythm, and almost destitute of grace, though still dancing essentially, as opposed to pantomine. For pantomime, remember, seeks to express emotion through realistic gestures, whereas dancing makes use of a convention of its own—a gesture in which the ordinary values of realism have no place.

The apparent oddness of a ballet like Jeux is due, then, not at all to perversity of subject, but to the employment of a dance-convention with which we do not happen to have been familiar. The Faune, you see, was played in London without protest and was quickly one of the most appreciated of Russian ballets, largely because the convention employed in it, though new to the stage, was familiar enough to anyone who could boast of a smattering of Greek culture. But in Jeux, where a more novel convention was practised on a modern theme, the stalls gracefully tittered and the critics next morning wanted to know what it was all about; while even those who had got so far as to discover that much were almost unanimous in voting the whole concern amusing, perhaps, but really too trivial to be worthy of serious attention.

From one point of view the theme of Jeux certainly is trivial. Expressed in terms of pantomime it might easily have seemed little more than a thing of merely fascinating commonplace, like a scene out of some musical comedy played in dumb show. But here Nijinsky comes in, and raises it all to a higher power of meaning by the sincerity of his purpose and by his use of a convention which so combines a sense of character with an austere impersonality of action, that it can turn a particular piece of fact or fancy into an instance of universal truth. For Jeux is something more than a scene of charming dalliance between a young man and two young girls. It is flirtation in the abstract, the essence of delightful adolescence, clothed in the garments of to-day, but equally true of yesterday, to-morrow, or the day after.

For all its exquisiteness, there is in Jeux, however, a certain experimental feeling which marks it still as the work of a period of transition. Now and then Nijinsky seems to relapse into a pose that is derived from an earlier convention, and once or twice we find a repetition of attitude which the action does not require. It is lucky for our present purpose that there is yet another production which shows Nijinsky's method in its fullest power, exercised without restraint or hesitancy and upon a theme exactly suited to its peculiar manner.

Le Sacre du Printemps raises so many questions, artistic and otherwise, that it might well form the subject of a whole book. It demands to be treated as carefully from the standpoint of archæology as of art, and even the theologian might find a good deal to say about it from his own particular point of view.

At a first visit it appeared to be not much more than an exhibition of antic savagery, a marshalling of broad splashes of colour, a monotonous variation on the theme of centric and eccentric circularities. But over all, in spite of much that seemed absurd, one felt the presence of a guiding intelligence, ordering all things to an end that was not yet clear, but, even in obscurity, beautiful. On a second visit, however, when one could forget to be amused, the whole spectacle gathered to itself a coherence and significance which proved its purely visual charm to be, in the truest sense, expressive of a fine idea.

With the simple directness of great art Le Sacre du Printemps points the imagination not away to an imaginary world of sentiment or ideal emotion, but back to the real but misty past of human life, to a time when man was still at hostile grips with nature, when the struggle between rich and poor had not begun, but when rich and poor alike were ranged together in a common strife with the cruelty of winds and waters. It was the life of the herd, and if we have ever glibly used or read the phrase "herd instinct" without realising what it meant, here it is, realised before our very eyes.

Primarily, we have said, this early life of man was a life of fear; but also it was a life of ecstasy and, now and then, of a strange communion with nature such as we of to-day can never know. For not always was nature unkind. At certain times and seasons, how, why, man knew not, she would take to herself the aspect of a most kindly goddess, and then would man feel himself to be so near to her and so grateful that nothing it seemed could be too great or too fearful a sacrifice if only he might attain again to that delight. And it was found that the favour of the goddess could indeed be gained, were she propitiated with fitting rites, so that after cruellest winter, from every shoot and tendril the sap would rise, and the brown earth bring forth its secrets, and man once more be warm, and the children play in the sun.

This is the holy rite of prayer and sacrifice which is celebrated in Le Sacre du Printemps. There is no other plot, and we need only sit and watch with a kind of grim but simple wonder the gradual completion of the ceremony.

On a luminous spring evening the young men of the tribe are being instructed in the appointed incantations. Soon a bevy of girls approach, and we have an episode of simulated rape, the ritual act which is the symbol of the clan's desire for fruitfulness, for sturdy sons and daughters to carry on its life, and to assure the safety in old age of those now at their prime. Then, huddled to-gether in little fumbling groups, these strange worshippers begin to pay their homage to the powers of the earth and of the stars. To a weird music they perform what is due, to a rhythm of unwearying persistence that throbs through all the festival, so that at last the whole broad earth seems to be throbbing, throbbing to the beat of it.

But this is not all. The conscience of the tribe demands the sacrifice of its fairest flower, to the end that all the rest may live on and enjoy the blessings of security and a pious heart. A young girl, the chosen of her fellows, is to be sanctified by acting out to the bitter end this drama of propitiation. Men of the tribe, clothed in the likeness of bears, flock around to witness the sacrifice, and the chosen maiden herself stands forth and resigns herself to the frenzied movements of the dance that celebrates at once her death and her apotheosis. This dance betrays the pitiful but haunting hope of primitive man, bound by chains as he lies, the slave to his own fear. For the limbs of the dancer seem fettered by hands unseen, so that at the moment when freedom is almost won, they relapse once more into bondage, helplessly jerking out their life in a divine paralysis. And now at last the sacrifice is accomplished. In dreadful travesty of death the girl languishes to the ground, and the bear-skinned tribesmen gather round to carry her away to burial, shoulder high.

Such is the ballet of Le Sacre du Printemps, if ballet it can be called. And however much you may dislike it, you cannot deny its interest as an attempt to track the art of dancing to its source in the rituals of savagery. Whatever its æsthetic value, this aspect of the thing at least is of importance. For its aim is altogether serious, and I have it from Nijinsky himself that the whole spectacle has been designed with the most reverent reliance on existing records of Muscovite life in the fourth century before Christ.

But if archæological accuracy were the only merit of Le Sacre du Printemps its claim to attention would indeed be limited. It displays, however, technical features of no inferior interest, some of which are also of first-class importance in the evolution of the ballet.

Hitherto, swiftness and lightness have been regarded as prime necessities in the modern ballet. The ability of dancers has been estimated according to their excellence in these respects, and the more the eyes of the spectators have been dazzled the more, it would seem, have they been pleased. Jeux and the Faune both showed that there were other possibilities in the dance, and now Le Sacre du Printemps conclusively contradicts all old ideas as to the importance of those qualities which were previously held to be essential.

For such movement as there is in this ballet is deliberate in the extreme. The attitudes of the dancers evolve with the measured inevitability of a slowly-turned kaleidoscope, and as for lightness—the whole performance is a studied demonstration of the attractive force of the earth and of the triumph of gravity. I have heard that if we were transported all at once to a planet like Jupiter, much greater in bulk than our earth, the sense of bodily weight would be so increased that we should find it difficult to walk upright. Such apparently is the feeling of the people in Le Sacre du Printemps. The earth seems like an enormous magnet which continually drags them downwards to itself, and such leapings as they do from time to time indulge in cannot result from any aspiring liveliness of spirit, but are traceable, more probably, to their wish to encourage, by such well-known acts of primitive ritual, the growth of crops and herbs.

However unorthodox in its effect, the manner in which Le Sacre du Printemps was designed was the same as that laid down by the regular tradition of the ballet. First the music was composed, and then the dances, though previous consultation between composer and choreographer had fixed the main lines on which the ballet was to proceed. This must account for the fusion, not only apparent but real, between the dances arranged by Nijinsky and Stravinsky's score. I doubt, indeed, if this music would prove effective in the concert hall, but its inseparable connection with the ballet must be accounted a virtue rather than an evidence of limitation.

To audiences accustomed to the graceful idealism of former productions, Le Sacre du Printemps came, as we have said, with something of a surprise. Almost every quality of beauty or dramatic interest which we had grown to expect in a ballet was absent from this one, and the first impression of many was that the whole thing was little more than a piece of uncouth and impudent mockery.

Yet if only one can bring oneself to view this very uncouthness as part of a large design, not simply as its dominating feature, one will have come a long way towards appreciating the ballet in the spirit intended by its creator. For besides the uncouthness of Le Sacre du Printemps, how much there is in it of beauty and deep emotion! Religion, the thing that binds and has tortured and nerved mankind throughout the ages, is still with us to-day, and there is nothing alien from modern thought or interest in this presentment of its early manifestation. For the sake of such a theme one can surely spare a little of that gracefulness which in other Russian ballets is lavished so generously.

As for the theme itself, we may admit that it is a strange and novel one, and that by making use of it Nijinsky seems to be claiming that a fresh range of subject should be opened up, or rather reopened, for the dance. But this implies, not a destruction of what has been valued in the past and will go on being valuable, but a gradual evolution towards a new expressiveness and a new technique. Strange things are bound to happen. Yet if reason and courage are behind them, why should we be afraid? Prettiness is very well in its way, but life is greater, and truth greater still. And in this truth—this reality which is the gleam that for ever eludes us—lies, as some believe, the hope of truest beauty.

This, at any rate, is the hope of Nijinsky. And for this he will labour while he may—for, in his own brave words, "La Grace, le Charme, le Joli sont rangés tout autour du point central qu'est le Beau. C'est pour le Beau que je travaille."