Nijinsky and ‘Le Sacre’

Nijinsky Dancing

by Lincoln Kirstein
Knopf, 175 pp., $35.00

Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States, 1911-1929

by Nesta Macdonald
Dance Horizons, 400 pp., $37.50

avec l’efflorescence prodigieuse des ballets russes, révélatrice coup sur coup…de Nijinsky, de Benois, du génie de Stravinski….

—Proust, Sodome et Gomorrhe

At first glance, Nijinsky Dancing would seem to belong in a Godiva chocolate shop; but to dismiss it because of this would be to overlook the gold beneath the glitter of the cover. Though primarily a photograph album, which may explain the confectionary wrapping, the text is substantial and should engage every balletomane. In addition to showing Nijinsky dancing, it reopens the controversial subject of Nijinsky choreographing. As noted in Anna Kisselgoff’s New York Times review (despite the false parallelism):

It is Mr. Kirstein’s brilliant scholarship that allows him to put forth an idea in this book that is by no means universally accepted. That idea (disputed by Nijinsky’s associates, Igor Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois) is that Nijinsky was as revolutionary a choreographer as he was a great dancer. [December 13, 1975]

In another review, by Gabriele Annan, Stravinsky’s name again appears among the skeptics of the thesis that Nijinsky was a choreographer, revolutionary or otherwise. Mr. Kirstein’s book includes his newly commissioned translation of Jacques Rivière’s 1913 essay on Le Sacre du printemps, which Lady Annan finds

still pretty heavy going—almost as heavy as Nijinsky’s choreography. The Diaghilev company performed Nijinsky’s version only a few times and then threw themselves with relief and gusto into Massine’s, which was also more to the liking of Stravinsky himself. [The Times Literary Supplement, February 13, 1976]

But this is misleading in several ways. At the time of Massine’s version (1920), only five dancers who had participated in Nijinsky’s (1913) were still members of the Diaghilev troupe, and none of them could recall enough of Nijinsky’s to be able to reconstruct it; if the company did throw itself with “gusto” into the new choreography, therefore, it could hardly have been with “relief” from the old one. Finally, too little of what actually happened on stage, of what the ballet looked like, has been made known to justify the aspersion “heavy.”

If Nesta Macdonald had extended her Diaghilev Observed… to include French, Russian, and German critics—in addition to English and American ones—a complete account of the dance movement in Le Sacre might have been pieced together. She does reprint the one important English review; and whatever factual information can be gleaned from the mountains of subjective commentary by other European critics. In 1924, Stravinsky was given a book-size collection of reviews from the Paris press of the Sacre premiere. Every one of these is characterized by highly emotional opinions and by a corresponding absence of simple reports on the stage action. Even Cocteau seems to have noticed nothing except the scandal, his one remark about the choreography, that it lacks counterpoint to the music, being the exact opposite of the truth. “Ugly” is …

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