Sunday, February 07, 2016

Nijinsky's "Crown of Thorns"

Artist Damian Siqueiros contends that famed dancer
Vaslav Nijinsky's "internal torment", his "crown of thorns,"
was the result of societal repression around his
gay "love affair" with impresario Sergei Diagilev.
Yet was that really the case?

I've been reading quite a lot about legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) and recently came across an article by art historian Ivan Savvine about artist Damian Siqueiros' 2014 project, "To Russia With Love." This project features depictions of Nijinsky and Sergei Diagilev (pictured together at right in 1911).

Following is an excerpt from Savvine's article about Sigueriros' project.

Damian Siqueiros, a Montreal-based visual artist and self-proclaimed “photopainter,” imagines, captures and restores the homohistory of Russia with his new project To Russia With Love. A field of inquiry tabooed for so long, the homoshistory of Russia – or history of Russian homoculture, if you may – has not enjoyed a proper chance to be discussed or shown. To Russia With Love is a series of provocative compositions imbued with iconic symbolism. It is a meditative journey into the worlds of past and present, the worlds of censorship and merciless repression, which nonetheless produced some of the world’s most dazzling artistic innovators.

The line-up of the characters who inhabit Siqueiros’ imaginary and yet historically significant world is impressive . . . [and includes] Sergei Diaghilev (the founder of Ballets Russes in Paris and arguably the first modern impresario at large) accompanied by his lover and muse Vaslav Nijinsky, a dancer and a choreographer, whose sheer audacity and force continue to live on as formative stimuli for the modern dance stage.

[Siqueriros says that] "Diaghilev and Nijinsky called my attention because they are at the center of one of the most productive, creative artistic companies. Diaghilev creates this hub for talent of all sorts like it was not seen before with Picasso, Balanchine, Stravinsky, Chanel. Paris is an extremely tough city and here is this Russian producer at the head of the avant-garde of the art world. That is an extremely rare phenomenon. The Rite of Spring, with its polarizing success, has become a rite of passage for choreographers to this day. In terms of Nijinsky, he’s arguably the best male dancer of the first half of the twentieth century. He starts a tradition of male dancers followed by Nureyev and Baryshnikov. One has to wonder how much of their creative force was based on the strength of their love affair.

"I think [both] Tchaikovsky and Nijinsky are very clear cases of what repression can do to the soul of one person. Their internal torment has become like a crown of thorns, visible to all and a witness to the shame to a society that was not advanced enough to understand them and ready to crucify them on account of their sexuality. It is only paradoxical that they enjoyed so much success and that with that success they had the scrutiny of the gaze of the world."

Above: Miguel Doucet as Diaghilev and Roscoe Stone as Nijinsky
in Damian Siqueiros' 2014 project, "To Russia With Love."

While I appreciate Siqueiros' photography I don't entirely agree with his take on Nijinsky and Diaghilev's relationship. Let me preface my critique by saying that I understand how gay people hunger for role models; we all want to see the realities of our lives mirrored back to us and magnified for all the world to see in great stories, films and other artistic expressions. Young people especially, gay and straight, long for positive and affirming roles models; and for queer youth such role models are definitely out there.

Yet it concerns me when this desire for someone or something to aspire to blinds us to personality traits, situations and relationships that in actuality may be far from worthy of admiration, from placement on a pedestal. With this in mind, I have to say that I see very little to admire or yearn for in the relationship of Nijinsky and Diaghilev. And yet in describing his project's photographs depicting Nijinsky and Diaghilev, Siqueiros describes their relationship as a "love affair," one that fueled Nijinsky's creativity.

From my reading on Nijinsky (pictured at left in 1909), I think this description is not only overly romantic but in fact false. I think it was Nijinsky resentment of Diaghilev and the control he exercised over every aspect of his life that played a far greater role in fueling Nijinsky's creativity than did any feelings of affection. I'm not suggesting that Nijinsky had no feelings of affection at all for his mentor, I just think that any such feelings were secondary to his hunger to be free of Diaghilev's oppressive need for control.

I think it's simplistic and erroneous to say that it was the very real homo-negativity of the times that was the primary cause of repression and torment in the young Nijinsky's life. I contend that Diaghilev, 18 years his senior and, more problematically, an extremely possessive and controlling personality, was a more repressive (some would say abusive) presence in Nijinsky's life.

Dance critic Luke Jennings, for instance, notes that in Diaghilev: A Life, author Sjeng Scheijen presents Diaghilev as a "charming and ruthless tyrant, whose sexual and emotional manipulations of those around him were born of a need for absolute control." Elsewhere, Peter Conrad, in reviewing Lucy Moore's 2013 biography of Nijinsky, critiques both Diaghilev and the treatment of dancers of his time.

[Moore] is franker than [Richard] Buckle in his 1971 biography could afford to be about the sexual abuse and exploitation [Nijinsky] suffered, or perhaps volunteered for, in his early career. . . . Diaghilev – a connoisseur of the male arse – ordered Benois to shorten the tunic he designed for Giselle to show off the rondure of Nijinsky's bottom; he also banned the trunks that smoothed the contours of obtrusive male organs. . . . It's apt that Nijinsky's first roles were as slaves, in Scheherazade and The Pavilion of Armide, since dancers of both sexes in the years before 1917 were treated as serfs, to be used for the sexual gratification of their patrons.

Another early and important role of Nijinsky's was that of the puppet in the Ballet Russes' 1911 ballet Petrushka, designed by choreographer and dancer Mikhail Fokine. It too, according to Gennady Smakow, was a role that shed light on Nijinsky's relationship with Diaghilev.

Writes Smakow in his book, The Great Russian Dancers:

In creating Petrushka for Nijinsky, Fokine achieved a kind of malicious psychoanalysis. Unquestionably, the role was designed with an eye to Nijinsky's bizarre offstage behavior – his mechanical gestures, wooden manner, impassive face (as deadpan as Buster Keaton's). What is more, the similarity between Petrushka's relationship with the Old Magician and that of Nijinsky and Diaghilev was surely meant to arouse the dancer's complex inner mechanism. His repressed resentment, his self-pity – all the facets of a "trapped soul" were to surface and stun the audience with the force of his pain.

Fokine's experiment was more than successful. As Petrushka, Nijinsky displayed the tragic facet of his genius. According to Alexandre Benois, he miraculously managed to express Petrushka's "pitiful oppression and his hopeless efforts to achieve personal dignity without ceasing to be a puppet."

. . . We can only wonder at the impact of Nijinsky's Petrushka. The rare balance between his stunning virtuosity and his impressive appearance had an almost surreal effect. His total identification with Petrushka, which stemmed (as Fokine had intended) from his sense of his relationship with Diaghilev and from his deep-seated inferiority complex, added an element of poignancy to the characterization which was further enriched by the resonance of Russian culture, with its time-honored theme of the spiritual superiority of the oppressed.

Lucy Moore in her 2013 biography of Nijinsky, similarly notes:

One of the remarkable things about Fokine's choreography is how insightful it was. Again and again he took a stock character and made it into something vitally evocative, distilling something of a dancer's essence in the roles he created for them. He did it for Pavlova with the Dying Swan, and he did it for Nijinsky with Petrushka, turning a wooden puppet into an extistential hero, oppressed by his fate, scabbling for a vestige of dignity, meditating on the precariousness of freedom and the tragedy of its loss.

Lydia Lopokova agreed. Petrushka had become, she wrote, the symbol of Nijinsky's "personality, the imprisoned genius in his docile body of the puppet struggling to become human and falling back again." he was, Richard Buckle quipped, "a Hamlet among puppets."

Damian Siqueiros would have us believe that it was "a society that was not advanced enough to understand [Nijinsky and Diaghilev's relationship] and ready to crucify them on account of their sexuality" which imprisoned Nijinsky's genius. The 1980 film Nijinsky conveys a similar message. But it wasn't as clear cut as that. Undeniably, it was a difficult era to be anything but heterosexual, but within the glittering arts world of pre-World War One Europe,centered in the relatively progressive city of Paris, Nijinsky and Diaghilev's relationship was an open secret. It had no impact whatsoever on the success (or failure) of the ballets they created and presented.

Left: Alan Bates as Diaghilev and George de la Peña as Nijinsky in the 1980 film Nijinsky.

It's also important to note that although Nijinsky is often claimed by gay men as one of their own, he was most likely either straight or bisexual. I actually think the most accurate word to describe what many of his contemporaries discerned as his sexual ambiguity, especially on stage, is queer.

It was an ambiguity that made for unforgettable and groundbreaking performances, performances that audiences across the continent clamored to see. Notes Gennady Smakov, for instance, about another of Nijinsky's most famous (and controversial) roles, that of The Rose in Le Spectre de la rose.

Spectre was a powerful metaphor for sexual ambivalence: a flower represented by an athletically built youth. Nijinsky's muscular but androgynous body soared in the air, embodying the inebriating power of perfume or, in a broader sense, [the] vague longing for sexual fulfillment.

Another perspective

I feel that a more perceptive and accurate depiction of Nijinsky than that offered by Damian Siqueiros can be found in choreographer John Neumeier's 2000 ballet, Nijinsky.

Above: Alexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova and Otto Bubenicek in Nijinsky. (Photo: Holger Badekow)

In its review of the Australian premiere of Nijinsky, notes the following.

For his ballet, Nijinsky, the choreographer, John Neumeier burrows deep into the mind of the great dancer to tell of his descent into madness.

Through intimate encounters and choreographed landscapes depicting Nijinsky’s memories and fears, the life of the dancer is brought to the stage in the dance equivalent of a stream of consciousness.

The audience can empathise with Nijinsky as he speaks through dance of his confusion and passions, while also observing his disintegration, as if they are watching a human exhibit in a gallery.

. . . Neumeier makes much use of intricate pas de trois and pas de deux. Among the best of these is a pas de deux for Nijinsky and Diaghilev that depicts Nijinsky, by turns, as a sacrifice, lover, and childlike being in the grasp of the impresario.

Recurrent gestures and shapes throughout the ballet include arms held in a wide circle (an extended balletic port de bras first position), flexed feet, feet used to press on other’s bodies, and arms held in outward line from the body to form a cross. The cross shape recurs at the end of the ballet when Nijinsky rolls out one long black swathe of black fabric and one of scarlet, in which he wraps himself in his dance he called his ‘wedding with God”.

The circled arms echo the large white illuminated circles of the set that, in turn, mirror the circles Nijinksy made in his drawings (comprising concentric circles and eye shapes).

Always, Neumeier goes back to ballet’s base with Nijinsky’s dance beginnings represented in classical technique – plies, tendus, and port de bras.

I appreciate Neumeier's thoughtful perspective on Nijinsky and the two most important relationships in his life – his relationship with Diaghilev and his relationship with Romola de Pulszky, whom he married in 1913.

I think his marriage to Romola is the greatest mystery around him. He was bisexual from the beginning. I do not think that the relationship with Diaghilev was one-sided, that Diaghilev seduced him. It was a mutual, also physical situation between them. We know certain things from his diary, including his relations with prostitutes in Paris. At a certain point he just wanted to have this woman. He didn't think it would have the consequences it did. There is a very interesting letter he wrote to Stravinksky, which is in Switzerland, in which he is quite confused at the reaction of Diaghilev to his marriage. I believe he thought that the two things could somehow continue at the same time.

What is interesting for me – and you will see this in the ballet – is that I don't judge anyone in it. I won't call it "scholarship," but in the Nijinsky fanaticism there are generally two camps. First, Diaghilev is the Devil. He seduced Nijinsky and that his madness was due to the relationship. Then there are those who consider his wife the Villainess. She is the one who took him away from his homosexual relationship and, therefore, brought on his madness. I don't think either one of them is right. Even the situation of his being released from the Ballets Russes is quite complicated. He was not released immediately upon his marriage. He was released later during the South American tour when he failed to perform at an event where there was no understudy for him at that moment. He knew his wife was pregnant. She convinced him to stay with her that evening and, therefore, he was released. As the director of a company, I can well understand that.

Above: Alexandre Riabko (Nijinsky) and Carsten Jung (Diaghilev) in Neumeier's Nijinsky. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

"I want to dance because I feel"

Rather than Nijinsky's queerness (or any "repression," in Damian Siqueiros' words, experienced as a result of his relationship with Diaghilev), I contend that it is more accurate to identify as Nijinsky's "crown of thorns" his being prevented from dancing – first by Diaghilev's firing of him, then by the upheavals of World War One, and finally by his debilitating mental illness. The last of these was, of course, compounded by the first two.

Dancing was of vital importance to Vaslav Nijinsky. As Lucy Moore writes, "Nijinsky had a passionate connectedness to his work, identifying completely with his art. He was different in every role, submerging himself into the part he was playing without any sense of the post-war irony or detachment which characterized later twentieth-century performance."

Moore also reminds us that Nijinsky communicated to his audience a sense of the "saturated moment" described by Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot – "a mystical combination of thought, sensation and experience that created a unified poetic whole."

Given all of this, it's not surprising that, as Moore notes, "even his friends often thought the dancer was [Nijinsky's] true self." And at the core of one's true self, many spiritual traditions tell us, is the sacred presence we usually term "God."

"I am the God," Nijinsky wrote when in the throes of his illness, "who dies when he is not loved."

In reflecting on this statement, Moore offers valuable insight. I therefore conclude this post by sharing the following from her 2013 biography of Nijinsky.

There is an electric connection between the God with whom Vaslav identifies and the dieu de la danse he had been acclaimed as by audiences ever since his professional debut ten years earlier. The sense of the dancer-artist as a semi-divine figure, capable of attaining what Erik Bruhn called "something total – a sense of total being," has been beautifully expressed by Rudolf Nureyev, and I imagine that something like this is also what Nijinsky felt when he performed. "There have been certain moments on the stage – four or five times – when I have suddenly felt a feeling of 'I am!' A moment that feels as though it's forever. An indescribable feeling of being everywhere and nowhere." This zen-like transcendence, a route into what Colin Wilson describes as "more abundant life," was something to which Nijinsky was exquisitely attuned but could not translate into his day-to-day experience. He could not communicate it to Romola; even he could not always grasp it. It was no wonder people had always thought of him as inhabiting a different plane. Perhaps only Diaghilev had understood, in part at any rate.

And without being a performer . . . what would Nijinsky be? Repeatedly he refers to living as working and death as not working, conflating the meaning of the words. For him "the working life was the only real life": human relations were fraught with pitfalls, "probably pointless, possibly dangerous, and in the end entirely destructive." When he describes the first time he made love to Diaghilev, he writes that he needed to live – to work – and was therefore willing to make any sacrifice. Now that there was no sacrifice he could make, he could feel his art slipping away from him. "I want to dance because I feel," he wrote [after his last public performance in 1919], "and not because people are waiting for me."

Above: The tombstone of Vaslav Nijinsky in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. The statue, donated by Serge Lifar, shows Nijinsky as the puppet Petrushka.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Nijinsky's Last Jump at Edinburgh Festival Review – Tender Evocation of a Tortured Ballet Genius – Judith Mackrell (The Guardian, August 21, 2015).
A Review of John Neumeier's Ballet, NijinskyGarebian on the Arts (November 27, 2014).
A Review of the Hamburg Ballet's Performance of John Neumeier's Nijinsky – Larissa Archer (Writhing in Apathy, March 1, 2013).
A Review of Nijinsky by Lucy Moore – Veronica Horwell (The Guardian, May 1, 2013).
The Rite of Spring – A Rude Awakening – Philip Hensher (The Guardian, April 12, 2013).
The Rite of Spring: "The Work of a Mad Man" – Tom Service (The Guardian, February 12, 2013).
Photographer Kate Baker Takes a Leap Into the Life and Soul of Vaslav Nijinsky – Kate Baker (The Financial Review, July 11, 2015).
From the Archives: Vaslav Nijinsky's ObituaryThe Guardian (April 10, 1950).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Dancer and the Dance
The Soul of a Dancer
The Premise of All Forms of Dance
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
The Church and Dance
The Naked Truth . . . in Dance and in Life
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 1)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 2)
The Trouble with the Male Dancer (Part 3)
Dance and Photography: Two Entwined Histories
Gay Men and Modern Dance
Recovering the Queer Artistic Heritage

No comments: