Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Fokine fathered it, Nijinsky raised it, Massine reveled in it. To watch Parade is to see a new art. The drop curtain fails of its effect here because it’s not a particularly well-painted amplification of Picasso (Matisse let Larionov alone to paint the Rossignol), or because it’s not well-lit (this is a worsening problem all evening). Furthermore, it’s presented half-lit at first, awash in gray. Finally the lights come on and you see it, sort of. Diaghilev would have been disenchanted.

It’s lifted, and the Manager in Evening Dress (with white knee stockings) stamps and do-si-does onto the stage. The Chinese Conjuror is one of Picasso’s clowns, and Massine has invented or rather developed a profoundly mystical utterance for him, a sequence of gestural symbolisms in a constant stream of discourse.

Now the Manager from New York enters with his megaphone. Then it’s the Little American Girl, somewhere between Myrna Loy and perilous Pauline. She types and looks and rolls around. The music stops and the Horse enters, which is two dancers in a horse costume with a Picasso head. It sashays downstage, rears, wags its tail, gets a few laughs and is most comically there.

The Acrobats are Picasso’s saltimbanques. She practices tightrope-walking, he deploys his skill, they go off like troupers.

All are brought on for the finale, in an increasingly difficult and dangerous act for the ballet master. And behold his solution: they suddenly dance as an ensemble for a bit, then all subside into a characteristic Picasso attitude of weariness as the curtain drops.

The ideal nudity of this is tea with cakes.

Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun is the meat and potatoes of poetry. It’s Debussy, of course, and then some. Mallarmé would have been startled.

Movements are by a kind of slow-motion expansion of verse units to fit the stage. The poem floats or rather rises up independently of the music or the dance in an unbroken flow of inspiration, so that nothing is lost.

The stage was badly underlit, and Bakst’s backdrop could not be seen properly.

The Rite of Spring must be heard as a ballet to be appreciated. Only in the context of Sheherazade and the Polovtsian Dances can the appareled violence of its first notes be immediately sensed, so that you grasp at once what took place at the Champs-Élysées.

Nijinsky’s masterpiece is particularly astounding seen after the Faun, which he had composed only a year earlier, for eight dancers. What doesn’t Nijinsky know about the poetry of the dance? He understands even more than the invaluable mathematics of stage movement, which takes two motions by a dancer and reveals a third, and adds the sum total of steps on stage into an aggregate of frenzy. He also understands the coup de théâtre that subsumes all motion into itself and transmutes the action to another plane.

It’s as much like cinema as anything else.

Roerich’s backdrop was left entirely in shadow. The dancers were underlit, but did as well as any could do.

The half-sized orchestra was miked throughout, a disastrous economy at such a feast (this might have been Balanchine’s chamber orchestra version, without which no Spring for Mr. B). But for the dancing, and the revelation of an art unearthed by scholarship, Diaghilev (who would rehearse an effect over and over, sitting alone in the stalls, and who specifically commissioned a score for large orchestra from Stravinsky) would have fallen out of his chair, laughed very miserably and gone home.

The revelation is Nijinsky’s, principally. He is the first great modern choreographer to stand with Balanchine, and second to none. Critics of the time were Dalcrozian, not him. Such a rapidity of invention, multiplying discrete attitudes that succeed one another in fractions of a second, in circles or groups or masses, is exactly what was called for by the demands of the scenario, and Nijinsky has developed the means to invoke his theme at every level. Contemporary descriptions have done a great deal of justice to the work, but it wasn’t seen enough, perhaps, to reveal the subtlety of the drama. It’s prehistory, and Spring, and modernity all at once. And two weeks earlier, there was Jeux...

All of this needs a Diaghilev in the hall to bring it off, and the purpose of reviving these works is to discover him, after all, among other things.