Nijinsky's Rite of Spring

April 2001

One of my most rewarding experiences of the last few years has been studying the reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's Jeux, as part of a Diaghilev triple bill at Covent Garden. I felt challenged, yet comfortable, in Nijinsky's unfamiliar style, and I enjoyed the rigorous intellectual process that Millicent Hodson brought to the restaging of this 1913 work. So when the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome invited me to dance Le Sacre du Printemps in a retrospective of Nijinsky's work - Nijinsky Ritrovato - I cleared my diary to make it happen.

Nijinsky's all too brief choreographic career - cut short by his descent into insanity - produced only four ballets: L'Apres-midi d'un Faune in 1912, Jeux in 1913, Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 and Tyl Eulenspiegel, in 1916.

In their time, only the last of these was considered a success. Faune offended with its angular, two-dimensional movement and its explicit eroticism. Jeux's tennis game for three and its flat-footed choreography were deemed incomprehensible. The outcry at the Paris premiere of Sacre has passed into legend: the audience riot greeting Stravinsky's strident score; cries of 'un docteur, un dentiste' for the maidens at the opening of the second movement; Nijinsky running up and down the wings screaming the counts to the dancers on stage.

Eye-witness accounts, newspaper reviews and photographic evidence make it clear that as a choreographer, Nijinsky was probably fifty years ahead of his time. Faune, for instance, came only seven years after Petipa and Ivanov's Swan Lake in St Petersburg. While Fokine had caused a mild sensation in 1909, by doing away with classical formality in Les Sylphides, there had been nothing in ballet - and little in any of the arts – to prepare audiences for the sheer modernity of Nijinsky.

Of course, modern day dance scholars have to take this revolution on trust. Only the first of Nijinsky's ballets was accurately preserved, in a system of notation devised by the choreographer himself and 'cracked', Enigma-style, by Ann Hutchinson Guest in the late 1980's. The rest were presumed lost.

Millicent Hodson, an American dancer and choreographer studying at Berkeley, California, first came across photographs of the 1913 production of Sacre in 1971. She was fascinated initially by how much these people with their plaited hair, painted headbands and long, loose dresses, looked like her. This was, after all, the decade when California was at its hippiest. But the photographs also showed Sacre to be a clear choreographic stepping-stone between the Italian ballet master, Enrico Cecchetti and the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham, and the idea of attempting to reconstruct the ballet took root. Eight years later, still intrigued, she decided that if there was any chance of reviving Nijinsky's lost masterpiece, she had better move fast. Nijinsky was long dead, but some of the Ballet Russes entourage were still alive, including, most importantly, Marie Rambert who, with her Dalcroze training and exceptional musicality, had acted as Nijinsky's assistant in the Sacre rehearsals. Hodson set out on what has become her life's work: painstakingly researching, retrieving and reconstructing the lost ballets of Nijinsky. Her sources fell into three major categories: visual, verbal and musical. Drawings by Valentine Gross and Rene Bull revealed important details, such as the position for the virgins, right hand on cheek, which prompted the calls for medical assistance back in 1913. Conversations with Leonide Massine, who succeeded Nijinsky in the Ballets Russes and restaged Sacre in 1920, complemented long discussions with Rambert and the observations of contemporary critics in a voluminous collection of reviews. Stravinsky's written comments gave exact orchestral measures for Nijinsky's choreography while Rambert's own rehearsal score, discovered on her death in 1982, carried annotations on groupings, movements and choreographic counterpoints. It was a Sacre based on this research that I was to dance in Rome.

The production is not without controversy. Reactions to the Hodson/Archer Sacre range from intrigued fascination to downright cynicism. Their work is archeological in its nature, and as such, the question of authenticity will always arise. (Interestingly, this was less of a problem in Rome, where people live amongst archeological finds and scholarly assumptions about their use.) Like all archeologists - part craftsman, part historian – they enrich the present by giving us an idea of the past. Hodson stresses that the work is a reconstruction after Nijinsky, not Nijinsky himself, but there are still those who believe that without guaranteed accuracy, the effect of the 1913 Sacre can never be reproduced. I entered into the experience with none of these misgivings, just a dancer's curiosity about the human body's potential for expression in a different form.

I've danced Rite before: thirteen years ago, in Kenneth MacMillan's powerful version for The Royal Ballet. Coincidentally, 1987 was the same year that Hodson, with scenic consultant and art historian Kenneth Archer, first staged her reconstruction of Nijinsky's original choreography, for the Joffrey Ballet in America. Having once danced Stravinsky's score, its complicated rhythms were branded on my brain, giving me one less thing to worry about. My main concern was stamina. The Chosen One dances herself to death, in a variation lasting almost five minutes. I was thirteen years younger when I danced MacMillan's version yet even so, I remember the feeling of total, leg-less exhaustion at the end. I nurtured a vague hope that ballerinas of 1913 couldn't have been as fit as today's dancers and that whatever Nijinsky had choreographed, it couldn't be nearly as hard. I was soon to discover that while sprinters run faster and jumpers jump higher as time goes by, dancing yourself to death doesn't change much over the years.

When I arrived in Rome, rehearsals had already started and I had just one day in which to catch up. I had to work fast, not only taking in the choreography, but reprogramming my posture to suit Nijinsky's style. In each piece he created, Nijinsky abandoned the traditional foot positions of classical ballet, replacing them with a different, hallmark stance. In Faune, the dancers move in bas-relief, as if in an Egyptian frieze. In Jeux, the feet are parallel, heels flat, the pointe shoe less ballet footwear than tennis pump. In Sacre, the toes meet to form the point of an arrow, the normal 'ten to two' position of the ballerina inverted to twenty past eight. I had constantly and consciously to remind myself, on every landing of every jump, to adjust my toes inwards. And there are 123 of them: a sequence of 25 high bounces, alternating with deep lunges, which returns halfway through the dance, arms slicing the air in sharp diagonals. And then, when you think you can't go on, it comes back, in a complicated variation dubbed 'the test'. If you survive the test, you know you'll make it to the end, but by now you're starting to lose control over your legs. You think they're doing the steps, but the chain of command between brain and feet has somehow been severed and you have to trust that although you can't feel anything below the hips, except the numbing effect of lactic acid, the message is still getting through. Ten darting turns, right and then left, before the final effort: a dozen more bounces, flailing arms, before you drop to the floor. The drop is real.

Dancing Sacre on stage, in Nicholas Roerich's costume and pigtailed wig, I felt as if I had been transported back to the Theatre du Chatelet in 1913. Ballet masters ran up and down the wings, screaming counts, trying to keep the Italian corps de ballet in time. Stravinsky's pounding accents drove the dancing onwards, winding up the tension to the point where the Chosen One's first leap from her frozen pose comes as a release. And I felt truly Chosen: both honoured and terrified and, by the ultimate note, unable to go on. The final drop was, in Millicent's words, 'honest'.

To a 21st century ballerina, schooled in Graham, MacMillan and Forsythe, the work feels not exactly modern, but markedly different from anything else I've danced in either classical ballet or abstract contemporary dance. To Hodson, Nijinsky's style is a lost technique, somewhere between the classical ballet of Petipa and Ausdruckstanz and the expressionistic moderns of the 1920's. As a critic wrote at the time: this is not just a new work, it's a new way.

As the protagonist in Hodson's recreation, I lack the objectivity to judge its impact. But I felt I had discovered a new physical language, strictly codified, that nevertheless released an expressiveness I hadn't previously tapped. The audience - clearly not bothered by academic definitions – was ecstatic and friends thought the piece masterful. We cannot determine how close Hodson has come to the original Sacre du Printemps, but her bravery, in daring to pick up such a fragile icon and her altruism, in attempting to pass it on to the future, command respect. For me, the nagging question is not one of authenticity. It's this: a range of highly intelligent, knowledgeable individuals - dancers, writers, choreographers and film makers amongst them, not to mention audiences - respond to this Sacre as a great piece of dance. If it's not Nijinsky, what does that make Hodson?