'L’Apres-midi d’un Faune,' 'Le Sacre du Printemps'
June 27, 2003 --
Music Center, Los Angeles
Even predating that feverish dream which is Hollywood, “Parade” realizes
the insight that sometimes the previews are more entertaining than the
feature films themselves. Its libretto is simple—before a music hall,
lumbering, Cubist hucksters and a menagerie of entertainers try to entice
passersby. The 15 foot tall MC costumes are Disney parade-like assemblages
of skyscrapers, stove pipe hats, and rapier cigarette-holders. So deeply
has the ballet imbibed synthetic cubism, the costumes seem to wear the
dancer rather than the other way—human limbs become part of their curious
construction. Samuel Pergande and Fabrice Calmels were French MC and American
Though the creators’ intent was to shock the jaded tastes of 1917, the
contemporary effect seems dated. To my eye, “Parade” looks squarely backwards
to the divertissements of the Russian Imperial Theaters rather
than forward to the modern age. The Chinese Conjuror in his hideous Mandarin
jacket, clown pants, and jesterish cap is of that degraded race of faux-Chinese
that populate so many unfortunate ballets. Definitely an opium eater.
The Little American Girl with her big white hair bow, “middy” blouse,
and Lolita lips seems somehow menacing as in her dance is a thinly concealed
pantomime of child molestation. She falls to the ground, gestures as if
pushing something away, struggles back flat on the stage floor. O yes
I realize that her choreography is a movie allusion but what is “The Perils
of Pauline” if not a pederastic fantasy? Davis Robertson is the Mandarin
and Stacy Joy Keller, Pauline.
More conventionally are the Horse MC, an importation from the music hall
tradition of two men in a horse costume, and the Acrobats, saltimbanques
familiar from Picasso iconography. A happy vestige of the horse ballets
of the 17th century, the Horse MC trots forwards, backwards, sideways,
and looks knowingly at the audience. He even chases his tail. I know it’s
impossible since its head is formed from a guitar, but I could have sworn
that Horse MC winked at us more than once. The saltimbanques, looking
great in their white unitards emblazoned with blue stars and stripes,
romp, wire-walk, and juggle. David Gombert and Michael Smith are the Horse
MC and Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives the Acrobats.
No doubt “Parade” was an eye opener in 1917. Lincoln Kirstein quotes Jean
Cocteau: “The hand of dictatorship lay heavy on Montparnasse and Montmartre
then, and Cubism was going through a period of austerity …. To do décor
for theater, above all, for the Ballet Russe, was a crime.” A crime? No
doubt Diaghilev found that delicious.
“L’Apres-midi D’un Faune” (Debussy/Nijinsky)
Don’t you love it when they bring porn to the Dorothy Chandler stage?
Not flesh but fetish. To Debussy’s dreamy music, the Faune basks lazily
until aroused by bathing nymphs. He chases them around nosing for a slo-mo
ravish but they escape. The curtain falls as the Faune enacts on the nymph
Leader’s scarf something forensic that is probably only described in the
more obscure pages of Krafft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis .
Or is witnessed by ticketholders – men, women, and children of all ages
and sects — on the Dorothy Chandler stage. Salacious … prurient … ? …
no, delectable ...
Domingo Rubio was the Faune and Trinity Hamilton, the Leader of the Nymphs.
“Le Sacre du Printemps” (Stravinsky/Nijinsky)
Years afterwards, Virginia Woolf wrote that the world changed around 1911
which is to say about the time of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon
(1907), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Saussure’s
Course in General Linguistics (1913) -- and of course “Le Sacre
du Printemps” (1913). Simply put, “Sacre” is considered one of the touchstones
of high modernism.
The story of the riot that ensued at its premiere at the is the stuff
of legend. Yet almost a century later its power can’t be denied. The only
other time I saw this “Sacre” was at the Kennedy Center last year and
I thought the choreography looked dated. Its turned in feet and other
ménage of anti-balletic movements (jumping, shuffling, sliding, knocking,
etc) looked antique – reminding me that it’s impossible to see “Sacre”
with the eyes of 1913.
In “Sacre” the race of man is primitive, tribal, tied to the earth by
unspecifiable shamanistic forces. Primitives natives dress in earthen
colors and vegetable pigments—red, blue, or mauve. They dance—perhaps
rituals of the hunt or combat. The tenuousness of man’s hold on existence
is betrayed by their reliance upon ritual, the sacerdotal transmission
of which is guarded by a gnarled “Old Woman of 300 Years” and a menacing
“Old Sage.” In the second part, human sacrifice (o yes, just another night
at the ballet…) is required to propitiate alien and hostile gods. A maiden,
the Chosen One, is singled out. Hunters in bear skins and ancestors dance
around the her—their pawing and scraping indicating a ritual inversion
of the hunt. To satisfy what must be an animal god, tribesmen are transformed
into beasts who hunt and devour a human. Dancing to terminal exhaustion,
the Chosen One is the quid pro quo of “Sacre”’s ghastly logic.
Diaghilev had shown sexuality, cruelty, and blood before. But, to propitiate
the cynical, jaded Parisian public, Diaghilev and Nijinsky gave them what
I believe might have been the last great old world ballet. According to
the ballet’s resolutely hard logic, the Chosen One is sacrificed to ensure
the continuation of the community. Her death—to us meaningless except
at spectacle—has an essentially social function—it justifies the weltanschauung
of a pre-modern world that mandates the existence of victims.
At the risk of straying into philosophy (or just exaggerating for effect),
I might say that after “Sacre” and the old world there would no longer
be a place for the grand recits of life, death, and community.
There would still be dark ballets of death—but most are of the petit
recits of a Lizzie Borden, Billy the Kid, the Poet and the Sonnambulist,
the Novice. I think it’s no coincidence that “Sacre’s” premiere becomes
iconic in and begins Modris Eksteins’ history, “Rites of Spring: The Great
War and the Birth of the Modern Age.”
The Chosen One was interestingly double cast with the Woman of 300 Years.
Tonite, Deanne Brown was the Chosen One and Maia Wilkens was An Old Woman
of 300 Years. Adam Sklute was the Old Sage. I’ll assume Leslie B. Dunner
Please join the discussion
in our forum.