Archives for category: Dance

At a time when ballet was reduced to pretty spectacle, and modern dancers were striking out on their own to create a new dance language, a few talented innovators knew ballet had the potential to rejuvenate. Premiering in 1909, the Ballets Russes gave ballet a bigger shake-up than anyone could have anticipated.

Nijinsky as the Faun

Where ballet had waned in popularity in Europe, Russia had incubated it, nurturing talented dancers and choreographers who by the 1900’s wanted to convey real emotion and meaning within the framework of classical ballet. Diaghilev, for whom the term ‘impressario’ was invented, gave them the forum they needed by combining some of the finest Russian dancers of the day like Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky with innovative choreographers like Mikhail Fokine, and transplanting them to Europe, free of the strict Imperial atmosphere. Working with and modern composers like Stravinsky, and modern artists like Leon Bakst for set and costume design, every aspect of the Ballets Russes challenged the preconceived ideals of classical dance.

These ballets were expressive, and rejected both the standard 3-act structure and use of the corps-de-ballet. Petroushka, for example, is divided into 4 parts, The Firebird into two, and both ballets are about fifty minutes long. For all their innovation, however, it was the dancers who brought life to the ballets, dancing with superb technical ability but also expressive power. Anna Pavlova danced with passion and fire. Vaslav Nijinsky seemed to hover in the air as he leaped, and portrayed characters with true emotional depth. European audiences had seen nothing like them before.

Before long, Nijinsky would turn his talents to choreography. For his two more famous ballets, L’Apres Midi d’une Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) he found inspiration in ancient Greek art. The simplicity and rigidity of the figures influenced his movements which today still look unusual – side-on with weighted postures and asymmetrical gestures. The classically-trained dancers found it difficult. The lightness of ballet was replaced with a barefoot heaviness and they struggled to keep their feet parallel. The short ballets took hundreds of rehearsals to get right. Difficult music required the dancers to count aloud throughout; Nijinsky even resorted to stamping his feet offstage to keep the dancers in time with each other.

For Nijinsky emotion was the originator of movement, not aesthetic – another departure from traditional ballet. Nijinsky he wanted to create “for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience”. But it was so new, so shocking, that the audience revolted.

L’Apres Midi d’une Faune was first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 29, 1912. The unballet-ness of the ballet was difficult enough for the audience to take, but the sexual references led to outrage. The plot is simple: a faune plays with seven maidens. When they leave one drops her scarf, which he picks up, spreads on the ground and lowers himself onto, a movement many considered obscene and mimicking of masturbation. Newspaper Le Figaro condemned the ‘vile movements of erotic bestiality’.

Sacre created an even bigger scandal. It lasted only six performances, premiering at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. Stravinsky’s discordant experimental music was unlike anything audiences were accustomed to. The plot, an unflinching portrayal of sacrifice in pagan Russia, was unpalatable. Everything about the choreography was raw, harsh. The movement was reduced, stripped bare of flourish; more like gesture springing from emotion. It contained repetitive motions of walking and stamping in order to evoke the primitive setting and reflect the score.

Many took the ballet to be a mockery of art. Its opening night in Paris caused a near-riot, which began even before the curtain was raised, during the opening music. The audience jeered and whistled and catcalled so loudly they drowned out the orchestra. Fights broke out. The orchestra played on despite having things thrown at them. The dancers danced on despite the sounds of both the orchestra and Nijinsky off-stage keeping time being drowned out by the rioting audience. The police were called in. Some critics called it “coarse” and “brutal” while others were intrigued.

To Diaghilev scandal meant tickets. Indeed the second night sold out. Scandal gave his company greater publicity and in turn greater profits. But while the Ballets Russes enjoyed continued success Sacre did not and they never performed it again. Over the years it has been revived and re-choreographed many times all over the world. Despite the initial revulsion, Stravinsky’s score, and the themes of ritual and sacrifice have kept drawing choreographers and audiences back.

Nijinsky was dismissed from the company in 1913. Though he choreographed again his work never attained quite the same infamy. The Ballets Russes had made their mark on Europe. Movement had become released from the restrictions of Classical ballet and in turn become more expressive. Ballet had returned as a relevant art form in Europe.

Europe in the the early 20th century was a world changing. Victorian ideals were in decline, and in their place new liberalism and experimentation emerged. The militarism leading up to World War I, and its aftermath, saw the dissolution of empires and new social orders begin. New technologies like radio and cinema, new music like jazz, and art movements like cubism were rewriting the rules on art and entertainment. The rise of Freud’s influence coincided with the thawing of traditional constraints against showing feeling, which led to a freeing of the body and mind. In the early twentieth century the foundations were being laid for the freedoms of thought, politics and movement we have today.  

Dance was not to be left out of this transformation. At this time Rudolf von Laban, a dance artist and theorist, was working in a movement called Bewegunskunst: German Expressionist Dance. In expressionist dance artists seek to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality. These explorations in dance and movement led to the creation of movement choirs, in which large numbers of people move together in a choreographed manner, but with room for personal expression within the movements. Laban created 25 schools of dance for children, amateurs, and professionals to further the idea that expressive dance can benefit anyone.

With Laban as with other modern dance pioneers, men and women danced barefoot in unrestrictive clothing – this in an era when men still wore suits every day and women’s corsets were only slowly on their way out of style. The individuals choice as a dancer, their self-initiated movements, was as important as the choreographers’ – revolutionary when compared to the dominance of the choreographer in classical ballet. To Laban, the movement arts could be free of its reliance on music, the body could find its own rhythms, and traditional steps could be abandoned. The body could simply explore the medium of space without direction or constraint.

In addition to creating and teaching dance, Laban wrote extensively, working on his studies of the human body, its movement through space and its relationship to space. His experiments led him to identify the basic vocabulary of expressive movement.  The culmination of his studies came in 1928 with the publication of Kinetographie Laban. This book describes the system of putting symbols on paper that represents body parts moving through space and time dynamically, which we now call Labanotation.

Laban’s drive to devise a notation system for dance came from a desire to lift dance as an art form. He believed this was only possible through literacy: being able to write about dance coherently and in a clear language.  With Labanotation, as with the standardised symbols of music or literature, modern dance could for the first time be ‘captured’. Works can now be recorded then accurately recreated without the need for the original choreographer and without relying on fallible memory. Students of dance at opposite ends of the world can study and recreate works working only from a score much like a music sheet. Dance works now live on beyond the choreographer, to be analysed and studied as any other artwork is. Laban’s dedication and pioneering work succeeded in establishing dance as equal among the arts.