Monday, December 13, 2010
L’Après Midi d’un Faune
This afternoon’s discussion of ballet on National Public Radio reminded me of a scene in Book 1 of Albion’s Millennium when Celia’s married cousin Emily takes her to see the Ballets Russes at the Royal Opera House in 1912.
“The curtain rose on a set of glorious color, a woodland glade of green and ochre and terracotta. A frieze hung from the proscenium and another lay along the base of the stage, both depicting nymphs in poses like those on Greek vases, awkward, two-dimensional, unreal. And then suddenly there were live nymphs on stage striking the same wooden, angular positions. In empire-waist dresses of almost transparent muslin and bare feet, they ran across the stage, their arms held above their heads in a stylized pose. All their heads turned to the right, then back again to the left. The music was luscious, but underneath the melody there throbbed an uneasy heartbeat from the violins. Then the girls gathered into a sudden tangle of arms and limbs, a tableau of nymphs, and astonishingly, a man came leaping out of the wings and hung in space for what seemed an impossible length of time before coming down upon one muscular leg. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. Celia leaned forward in her seat and gripped the edge of the box.
Nijinsky wore a dappled skin-tight costume with a fig leaf at the V of his legs. A short, erect tail was affixed to his rear. He pivoted on one leg and struck a pose, his hands flat, the thumbs held stiffly away from the palms. He went up on his toes then crouched down low. He writhed, he twirled and then flung himself into a series of pliées. Again, the audience erupted with applause.
Celia looked through her opera glasses. Nijinsky’s costume showed every curve and ripple of his athletic body, the bulge of the calf, the swell of the shoulder, the sinewy neck. And yet there was something undeniably feminine about what he did with his body as he gamboled with the nymphs around their bathing pool. The cap that lay close against his head with its strange little tip, the gracefulness of his arms, somehow made him seem more like one of the nymphs than a faun who had caught them unawares. Nijinsky chased the nymphs to the swell and pulse of the music, and as they fled offstage, he spun around in a mad lonely dance of disappointment. Celia felt tears come to her eyes. She felt for the little androgynous faun, lovesick and crazed with loneliness and despair. Nijinsky launched into a series of running spins, round and round and round. At the height of his acceleration, he burst into a grand jeté even higher than the one that had catapulted him onto the stage. As he came to earth at the climax of the music, he fell to his knees. The audience gasped and Celia’s hand flew to her mouth, but it was all a part of the dance.
The faun lay close to the ground but in his upraised fist he held a long chiffon scarf. He rolled over to his back and held the scarf above him stretched between his two hands, then let one end of it fall and trail over his body. His head went back and his eyes closed. Celia longed to look through her opera glasses but didn’t dare. She sat as still as she could, her heart beating against her rib cage. Once more Nijinsky caught the scarf in both hands and sitting up he passed it along the back of his neck and across his face, sniffing it, feeling it against his mouth. Abruptly he rolled once more onto his stomach and fed the long sinuous scarf between his legs and, as the music crescendoed, he raised his buttocks and pressed them over and over against the material, his eyes closed, his head back. The music crested, he arched his spine and flung his head back, his face a rictus of agony. He held that pose - Celia could see the muscles in his arms trembling with the effort - until slowly, slowly he deflated himself, muscle by muscle, till he lay full length and broken on the stage.
Suddenly all was black and silent in the theatre. And then the applause began, a torrent of clapping that masked the hum of excitement and consternation that ran through the hall. Ottoline stood up, splendid in her peacock feathers, and shouted, 'Bravo, Nijinsky!' but Celia could see several men down in the orchestra stalls, hurrying their wives towards the exit. Celia’s heart was pistoning in her chest and her face felt hot. She found her handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat that had broken out on her upper lip. By the time the house lights came up for the first intermission, she felt slightly more composed.
Emily leaned forward from behind her, laughing. 'What would Aunt Rosalind say if she knew you’d seen that?'”