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;1 but this should be published along with Jean Marnold’s essay2 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 the most common epithet for the dancing—though in which ways the writers fail to mention. What is more, none of these reviewers ever questions his own qualifications to judge the new creation, or doubts that the nature of ballet is inalterable.

As for Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States, the one significant criticism to be made of the book is that its main contents are ipso facto tangential, the first runs of most of Diaghilev’s productions having been in Paris. And if few of the English critics of the time are worth reading today, none is among the Americans, who generally have less to say about the artistic achievement than about the box office (“there was not a single vacant seat”). Even a few lines by an informed observer, especially an inside one, are more valuable than this book’s hundred pages of provincial newspaper clippings, as is shown in the following comments from Ernest Ansermet to Stravinsky about Diaghilev’s first American tour:

Diaghilev…reproaches me for everything: the curtain, the tempo, when the horns crack on a note, even when the dancers make mistakes…. Petrushka has had more success as a stage spectacle than The Firebird, though it seems to me that the music—too direct—has not been truly understood…. The American public is accustomed to consider nothing in any artistic enterprise except “stars,” hence all publicity in all of the cities of the tour [is concentrated on] Nijinsky and Karsavina, without whom the Ballets Russes is thought to be nonsense…. [from the Majestic Hotel, Philadelphia, March 1916]

Anyone concerned with the question of Nijinsky’s talents as a choreographer must focus on Le Sacre du printemps, despite the present lack of a complete description of the original. First, Le Sacre was the one ballet—Nijinsky choreographed only three others—in which he himself did not dance, and to separate the creative and the performing aspects of his art, particularly in L’Après-midi d’un Faune, must have been, as it still is, a formidable task. Second, with Le Sacre, unlike his ballets for music by Debussy and Strauss, Nijinsky was working in close collaboration with the composer, with whom, moreover, he spoke the same language and shared the same cultural background. In the first edition of the four-hand score the mise en scène is accredited to both men.


Lady Annan’s statement that Stravinsky preferred Léonide Massine’s choreography to Nijinsky’s is not true, though some of the composer’s comments when Massine’s version was being launched in Paris and London may seem to support such a conclusion:

What enlightened Massine was to hear [Le Sacre] in concert…thus from the first he perceived that, far from being descriptive, the music was an “objective construction.” Massine does not follow the music note by note, or even measure by measure…. Take, for example, this measure of four followed by one of five: Massine’s dancers stress a rhythm of three times three….3 [“Les deux Sacre du printemps,” Comoedia, December 11, 1920]

The choreographic construction of Nijinsky was of great plastic beauty but subjected to the tyranny of the bar; that of Massine is based on phrases, each composed of several bars. This last is the sense in which is conceived the free connection of the choreographic construction with the musical construction…. [Le Sacre] exists as a piece of music, first and last. [The Observer, July 3, 1921]

The real preference expressed here is not for the work of Nijinsky or Massine, however, but for concert rather than staged performances. By 1920 Stravinsky was much less interested in Le Sacre as a ballet than he had been in 1913, partly because the ballet had been so violently abused, the music by itself so wildly acclaimed. And these interviews show that, consciously or unconsciously, Stravinsky had forgotten the original choreography, which was also based on “phrases composed of several bars.” Nor is the composer entirely accurate in saying that the work exists as “music, first and last,” since the choreographic visions that inspired him partly determined the musical form. This is vividly revealed in a letter to his co-author of the scenario, the painter and archaeologist Nikolai Roerich:

I have already begun to compose, and, in a state of passion and excitement, have sketched the Introduction for “dudki” [reedpipes] as well as the “Divination with Twigs.” The music is coming out very fresh and new. The picture of the old woman in squirrel furs sticks in my mind, and she is constantly before my eyes as I compose the “Divination with Twigs.” I see her running in front of the group, sometimes stopping them and interrupting the rhythmic flow. [September 26, 1911]

Stravinsky’s deprecation of Nijinsky’s musicianship and of his choreography of Le Sacre first appeared in the composer’s autobiography,4 which was written two decades after the event and seven years after he had temporarily abandoned ballet for other musical forms. By then the first Sacre was so far from his thoughts that the autobiography both misdates the premiere and contradicts every public and private reference to Nijinsky’s work that Stravinsky had made at the time of the first performance, May 29, 1913. Only in 1967, with the recovery of the score that he had marked for Nijinsky and used in rehearsals with him, did Stravinsky recall the original conception and reaffirm his former approval of Nijinsky’s realization of it. Near the end of the composer’s life, he read Irina Vershinina’s monograph on his early ballets (Moscow, 1967), and after his death it was discovered that he had made two marginal emendations, one of them to say that criticism of Nijinsky’s choreography had always been “unjust.”

The truth is that in 1913 Nijinsky was the only choreographer whom Stravinsky would consider as a collaborator for new works, as is shown in this excerpt from an interview with Henry Postel du Mas (undated, but perforce the day after the premiere):

Nijinsky is capable of giving life to the whole art of ballet. Not for a moment have we ceased to think along the same lines. Later you will see what he can do…. He is capable of innovation and creation.

The composer’s letters consistently bear out this high regard for Nijinsky as choreographer. At the beginning of their work together, six months before the premiere; Stravinsky wrote to N.F. Findeizen, editor of a St. Petersburg music review, that “Nijinsky directs [Le Sacre] with passionate zeal, forgetting himself.” Nor did Stravinsky change his mind after the scandal:

Nijinsky’s choreography is incomparable. With the exception of a few places, everything is as I wanted it. But one must wait a long time before the public becomes accustomed to our language. [Letter to Maximilien Steinberg, July 3, 1913]

An even more important testament to Nijinsky’s creative genius is found in a letter to Alexander Benois, the composer’s artistic confidant at the time. When Nijinsky married (in Buenos Aires, September 10, 1913), Stravinsky, realizing that Diaghilev would dismiss his protégé, lamented to Benois:


For me, the hope of seeing something valuable in choreography has been removed for a long time to come. [Letter of October 3]

The dancer begged the composer to intercede with Diaghilev, in a letter that reveals a scarcely believable naïveté: “Ask Diaghilev what is the matter!” But having already spent two days with the impresario,5 Stravinsky understood that no reconciliation was possible. What is more, he had learned with deep disappointment that Diaghilev’s commitment to the music of the Sacre had cooled. The same letter to Benois continues:

This last child, Le Sacre, does not give me a moment’s rest. There is some incredible gnashing surrounding it. Seriozha6 tells me of the very hard to accept betrayal by people who used to regard my previous works with great enthusiasm, or, if not that, at least with unshakable sympathy. Well, I say—or rather, I think—so it must be. But why has Seriozha himself wavered toward the Sacre? He used to listen to it at rehearsals, exclaiming “divine,” and he even said, which one actually might have taken as a compliment, that it should have been put aside after it was composed until the public was ready for it…. In summing up my impressions about his relationship to the Sacre, I have come to the conclusion that he is not encouraging me in this direction. In effect, I have been deprived of the one and surest support in the propagation of my artistic ideas…. But enough of the Sacre.7

It was several weeks after the first performances of The Firebird (June and July, 1910) before Stravinsky confided his ideas about Le Sacre to Diaghilev. The reason for this secretiveness was that Diaghilev had quarreled with Fokine, the choreographer of The Firebird, and though Fokine would never have been Stravinsky’s choice for the new “choreodrama,” as he then referred to Le Sacre, he nevertheless wanted Diaghilev to present it, rather than the Imperial Russian Theater, which was the alternative. The break between Diaghilev and his chief choreographer was averted for two more years, hence the continuing assumption that Le Sacre would be assigned to Fokine. In any case, when Diaghilev and Nijinsky visited Stravinsky in Switzerland in September 1910, the music that he played for them was not Le Sacre, but the second tableau of Petrushka, and the completion of this new ballet and its performance the following spring postponed all consideration of Le Sacre, which was not commissioned until July 1911.

In the last week of that month, after completing the cantata Zvezdoliki, Stravinsky met with Roerich to work on the scenario. This took place at Talashkino, the Princess Tenisheva’s estate near Smolyensk, and a letter from the composer concerning his journey there suggests the rural Russian nineteenth-century setting in which this representative twentieth-century masterpiece was begun:

Dear Nicolai Konstantinovitch [Roerich], please write immediately on your arrival in Talashkino, telling me the best means of conveyance from Smolyensk. If it is not too far, could some horses be sent to fetch me? Remember that my train from Warsaw arrives very early, I think at 5 o’clock in the morning….

There was no passenger train, as it happened, and Stravinsky rode from Brest-Litovsk in a cattle car—alone with a bull!

The composer’s copy of the Talashkino scenario differs from the argument published in the program at the premiere, as well as from the three other surviving versions—one by him, two by Roerich. But be this as it may, Stravinsky, as always, worked with an exact plan of action in mind, which he not only discarded but also denied ever existed once the ballet had been completed.8

[Massine] and I have suppressed all anecdotal detail, symbolism, etc. [that might] obscure this work of purely musical construction…. There is no story and no point in looking for one…and no subject. The choreography is constructed freely on the music. [Comoedia, op. cit.]

The changes in the scenario explain why the titles in the score do not include all of the episodes or even correspond to the program at the first performance. Nijinsky, meanwhile, was not apprised of the first scenario and most likely was unaware of the others until the summer of 1912.

Part One was composed very rapidly, partly because Le Sacre had been scheduled for performance a year before it actually took place, but primarily because Stravinsky was in a fever of inspiration. His most thrilling statements about any of his works in progress were made to friends during the composition of the first part of Le Sacre. For example, he wrote to Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, March 7, 1912:

My God, what happiness it will be for me when I hear it…. It is not necessary to talk about it, only to listen to it…. I feel as if twenty and not two years had passed since The Firebird was composed….

And to Roerich, after completing the first tableau:

It seems to me that I have penetrated the secret of the rhythm of spring, and that musicians will feel it.

This exhilaration was tempered a week later when Stravinsky learned that Le Sacre would not be performed in 1912, though he must have realized that he could not have finished it that spring. On March 30, after playing parts of the score for Diaghilev and Nijinsky in Monte Carlo, the composer wrote to his mother:

Diaghilev and Nijinsky are wild about Le Sacre. The unpleasant part is that the choreography will have to be done by Fokine.

After that Stravinsky played the still incomplete score for his musician friends. The first of these auditions, on Sunday, June 9, at Bellevue (Paris), was described by the critic Louis Laloy:

One bright afternoon in the spring of 1913 [sic],9 I was walking about in my garden with Debussy. We were expecting Stravinsky. As soon as he saw us the Russian musician ran with his arms outstretched to embrace the French master, who, over his shoulder, gave me an amused but compassionate look. He had brought an arrangement for four hands of Le Sacre du printemps. Debussy agreed to play the bass. Stravinsky asked if he could remove his collar…. When they had finished, there was no question of embracing, nor even of compliments. We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages…. [La Musique retrouvée, 1928]

At the beginning of November 1912 Stravinsky played the music for Ravel and others at the home of Maurice Delage in Auteuil. On this occasion Léon-Paul Fargue described Stravinsky as “nerveux et câlin, profondément savant, d’une variété sans limites,” and the critic and composer Florent Schmitt10 promised his readers that he would speak to them

of the importance of Les Sacres [sic] which will be played throughout the world, for the piece tells of freedom, newness, and the richness of life. [La France, November 12]

To return to the summer of 1912; Stravinsky, at home in Ustilug (Volhynia), expressed his growing concern about the choreography in a letter to Schmitt, and in September went to Venice to familiarize Nijinsky with the music. A second meeting with him took place in the fall, and, at the end of November and beginning of December, after the score had been completed in abbreviated form (November 17), Stravinsky spent two weeks supervising rehearsals with Nijinsky and the dancers in Berlin, where the company was performing with great success.

Stravinsky,…small and wiry, sat like an intense focus of electric flame darting over the piano….11

Returning to Switzerland, Stravinsky wrote to Roerich:

I had to leave [Berlin] but promised Nijinsky that if he could not manage without my help, I would come to him (for the third time!)…. How I hope that he has time enough to stage the “Spring.” It is very complex and must be done as nothing has ever been done before. [Letter of December 14, 1912]

Even before Stravinsky’s visit to Berlin, the decision had been made to seek help from Jacques Dalcroze, the Swiss inventor of modern “eurythmics,” to teach the unprecedentedly complex rhythms to the dancers. Accordingly, Diaghilev engaged Dalcroze’s pupil Miriam Ramberg,12 who assisted Nijinsky from then until the premiere and contributed at least one Dalcrozian idea to the choreography, the divisions into small groups. Dalcroze himself wrote to Stravinsky,13 then in Vienna, on January 7, 1913:

You are the man of genius who can create, and you hold in your hands the future of the dance. You are the only one who understands and can compose not mere divertissements but true dance works…. You have already regenerated the ballet but you are perhaps not yet aware of all the resources, [since] the musician must know the human body, just as the human body must be impregnated with music…. M. Nijinsky is also un homme très rare, whom I find admirable in certain things but despair of in others, such as “Le Spectre de la Rose,” in which he dances against the music….

The letter ends with an appeal for Stravinsky to spend two weeks in the Dalcroze Academy at Hellerau, near Dresden, but he appears not to have answered, probably because he was so upset with the hostile reception of Petrushka by the Viennese.

Apart from that, the music at the climax (192 to 201) is based not on rhythmic units but on melodic ones, and on a “dialectical structure of phrases” (Stravinsky to Ansermet, January 30, 1926). This refers to two alternating motifs (and their variants), each of which is contained in single phrases of either two or three measures. The motifs could hardly be more clearly contrasted, since the direction of the first is upward, its intervals are comparatively wide, and it is played by the full orchestra, while the direction of the second is downward, its intervals are narrow, and it is played by horns and strings alone. Obviously the choreography must identify these motifs, and in any case, no room remains for another design. It also follows that a purely rhythmic approach to the music would be featureless. But to judge from Dalcroze’s own compositions, he could hardly have understood this, at least at the time, or have realized that at the turning point (which occurs in the two-measure phrase at 197 the metrical patterns of twos and threes are broken. Here, where the second motive disappears, the meter expands once to four, but it is one of the most stunning pivots in all music.

On January 25, Nijinsky wrote to Stravinsky from Leipzig, mentioning five rehearsals since Vienna and that the choreography had been worked out through the Khorovod in Part One. Nijinsky is scarcely able to contain his exuberance in the new creation:

I know what Le Sacre du printemps will be when everything is as we both want it. For some it will open new horizons, huge horizons flooded with different rays of sun. People will see new and different colors and different lines, all different, unexpected, and beautiful….

In London, during the first two weeks of February, Nijinsky and Stravinsky rehearsed the dancers—and gave interviews that do not completely conform in their descriptions of the choreography. Nijinsky called it “the soul of nature expressed my movement to music,” adding that “it will be danced only by the corps de ballet, for it is a thing of concrete masses, not of individual effects.” This analysis is essentially correct, even though it seems to overlook the not-yet-choreographed solo dance of the Chosen Virgin. When Stravinsky returned to Switzerland, Pierre Monteux, who was to conduct the piece, wrote to him about discrepancies between the orchestra score and Nijinsky’s piano reduction—and, indeed, there are many, for by this time Stravinsky had rephrased much of the music for the choreography.

In mid-March, Nijinsky, rehearsing in Beausoleil-sur-Mer, telegraphed to Stravinsky for “the piano score of the final dances.” At the beginning of May the company was in Paris, but the dancers did not have an opportunity to try the pieces on the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées stage until the 18th, and not with the full orchestra until the 26th and 27th. The dress rehearsal, on the 28th, was the only complete performance of Nijinsky’s choreography that Stravinsky ever saw. The next morning a Paris newspaper (unidentified) announced that

Le Sacre du printemps will be presented this evening in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. It is the most astonishing creation that I have ever witnessed by the admirable company of M. Serge Diaghilev.

But publicity such as this may have had an inflammatory effect, and have helped to precipitate the historic scandal at the premiere. The critic for Comoedia believed as much, attributing the uproar partly to

the exchange of controversial opinions all over Paris from people who attended the rehearsals. Even before the curtain rose, people sang, whistled, applauded, shouted ironic bravos…. By the end of the Prelude, people had stopped listening to the music, and attention was directed to the choreography, which was ugly or indifferent…interesting, perhaps, from time to time…. [Comoedia, May 31, 1913]

At the end of the Prelude, too, Stravinsky left his seat (No. 111) and went backstage to Nijinsky.

As for the spectacle onstage, no reviewer bothered to describe it, but, as the choreography was the same six weeks later in London, a report from there may be substituted:

A group of maidens in vivid scarlet huddles together to the accompaniment of closely-written chords in the trumpets…a little later on the dancers thin out into a straggling line, while the orchestra dwindles to a trill on the flutes; then a little tune begins in the woodwind two octaves apart and two groups of people detach themselves from either end of the line to begin a little dance…. As regards gesture, the convention employed seems to be a treble one. First we have purely ritual movement of a primitive kind, such as leaping on the earth and looking towards the sun, then imitative or realistic gestures, seen when all the dancers shiver with terror at the entry of the old seer;14 and, lastly, movements of purely emotional value….

What is really of chief interest in the dancing is the employment of rhythmical counterpoint in the choral movements. There are many instances, from the curious mouse-like shufflings of the old woman against the rapid steps of the men in the first scene, to the intricate rhythms of the joyful dance of the maidens in the last. But the most remarkable of all is to be found at the close of [Part One] where figures in scarlet run wildly round the stage in a great circle, while the shifting masses within are ceaselessly splitting up into tiny groups revolving on eccentric axes. It is here that M. Nijinsky joins hands with M. Jacques Dalcroze. [The Times, July 27, 1913]

Of the reception of the ballet at the premiere, Schmitt wrote:

The genius of Igor Stravinsky could not have received more striking confirmation than in the incomprehension and vicious hostility of the crowd. With a logic, with an infallibility, human stupidity demands its rights [La France, June 4, 1913]

But retribution for Stravinsky was not long in coming. On April 5, 1914, Monteux performed Le Sacre du printemps in a Paris concert, after which the composer was borne from the hall on the shoulders of the crowd and carried in triumph through the Place de la Trinité:

The crowd that invaded the Casino de Paris stopped all traffic in the Rue de Clichy and upset strollers in the Place de la Trinité…. After the last chord there was delirium. The mass of spectators, in a frenzy of admiration, screamed the name of the composer, and the entire audience began to look for him. A never-to-be forgotten exaltation reigned in the hall and the applause went on and on until everyone was dizzy. The reparation is complete. Paris is rehabilitated. For Igor Stravinsky the homage of unlimited admiration. [Comoedia, April 6.]

We are all in debt to the author of Nijinsky Dancing for his part in the founding and direction of the world’s greatest ballet company. But curiously, neither it nor any other ranking American organization has ever produced Le Sacre du printemps, and of recent European stagings, the Mary Wigman, Béjart, MacMillan, and other versions are irrelevant, while only that of the Budapest Opera Ballet even attempts to follow the outlines of the original. Surely the New York City Ballet, which can hardly avoid the Sacre during the approaching Stravinsky centenary, should recognize an obligation to present the Nijinsky version, as preserved in Stravinsky’s and Dame Marie Rambert’s promptbook scores. Thus, at last, justice might be done to Nijinsky’s, as well as Stravinsky’s, masterpiece. And what could be more fitting homage to Mr. Kirstein than to prove his belief in Nijinsky the choreographer?

This Issue

April 15, 1976