In the early 20th Century, European artists stripped antiquities and African tribal art of their religious significance. The pieces, with bold, minimalist shapes and lines, influenced Modernism and Cubism in design, only, as artists explored the relationship between humanity and the Industrial Revolution.
Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes was acclaimed for bringing modern dance to Parisian audiences with ballets like Petrushka: score, Igor Stravinsky; choreography, Michel Fokine, leading role; Vaslav Nijinsky.
Because Nijinsky was his lover, Diaghilev had as much confidence in him as a choreographer as he did a dancer. He was not dissuaded when Nijinsky caused a scandal with his first ballet, Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. Nijinsky insisted on stylized two-dimensional, bas-relief movements (inspired by an Ancient Greek vase at the Louvre) and ended the ballet with an overt sexual gesture.
When Diaghilev commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a ballet score about an ancient, pagan, Slavic, ritual human sacrifice, again Nijinsky was chosen as the choreographer.
However, Stravinsky didn’t remove tribal religious significance, as Picasso did. He embraced it. Rite of Spring was set in prehistoric Russia and ended with a chosen girl, dancing herself to death to ensure fertility in her land and tribe.
The riot, err, ballet premiered May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Riot, you say? Why?
The costumes were loose. Dancers’ toes were pointed in. Maidens’ faces were painted white. On their cheeks were two bold red circles outlined in black. Men did stomping dances. Critics, who were used to fairy women in toe shoes, howled that the movements were spastic, clumsy, off-center, pack-like, and raw.
The society portrayed was pagan with an old sage who signals it’s time to make a sacrifice. But there was no king, no Christian God, no church, no army, no awareness that people had to pay homage to anything but their adoration of the Earth.
For the most complex score ever written for ballet, Nijinsky chose simple, unsophisticated, but brilliant movements, one to every beat, 2 beats, or 4 beats, making sure that dancers only expressed melody. He let Stravinsky’s radical ideas, dual tonality and dual rhythms, live by themselves. He also made his dancers go into the floor, a controversial innovation that Martha Graham also championed when she came on the scene in 1926.
In Rite of Spring’s last solo, the chosen girl jumps with the spastic, shivering fear of a caged animal who knows she’s going to die but cannot escape. Tribesmen wearing bearskins surround her and move like horses. At the last trill, she’s ready. She lays down and offers her body. Eight men pick her up, hold her on top of their hands, and she’s dead.
After looking at the warrior jumping-dances of the Maasai, may I suggest that Nijinsky, like Picasso also took artistic inspiration from Africa?
A beautifully dressed Parisian audience at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées would have included women who wore winged diamond tiaras or Art Nouveau jewelry to compliment velvet opera coats and House of Worth evening gowns. Seeing this ritualistic tribal portrayal done on white dancers shocked them to riot.
The audience could not contemplate that once European culture was primitive, that their sense of hierarchy, cultural superiority, and self-worship was irrelevant — at a Ballet Russes performance, in 1913, at a time when Faberge was still making Easter Eggs for Czar Nicholas II.
Auguste Rodin, Odilon Redon, and Marcel Proust vociferously defended Nijinsky, but it was not enough. He was vilified. His heart could not bear the world’s scorn. He had a nervous breakdown in 1919, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and lived in and out of hospitals and asylums for the rest of his life. A countess he married, and of whom Diaghilev was extremely jealous, devoted her life completely to his care, and Nijinsky died in a London clinic in 1950.
Opinions vary as to whether his wife’s plebeian nature or the world’s rejection of his vision triggered Nijinsky’s schizophrenia, but to me it doesn’t matter.
An artist takes the world with him. As a founder of Cubism, the world followed Picasso, but not Nijinsky. Today, his original choreography has been resurrected by The Joffrey Ballet to rave reviews, and people continually lay flowers at his grave.
What is schizophrenia? You hear voices. You see things that are bizarre to the world: paranoid fantasies, somatic delusions, obscure and confused expressions. But in rare cases, may I be bold enough to suggest that the worst mental illness can be triggered by a closed-minded world who breaks the heart of a genius?