Monday, August 1, 2022

Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and the Origins of Priss

I'm digging deeply into Stravinsky right now. His big three ballets: Firebird, Petrushka, and (especially) The Rite of Spring were brazenly provocative, deemed little more than noise when first premiered (the latter incited a riot). But Igor won in the end. These three pieces have baked so deeply into Western art that they're like Stairway to Heaven - at this point, one needn't ever have heard a single Zeppelin tune to effortlessly follow along.

They're called "ballets", but that's just a proposal from the composer. Sort of like if I wrote a movie screenplay and typed "Blasé Tuesday: a Film by Jim Leff" on the cover. It's not a film, it's a piece of writing until some dude with a camera shows up. Luckily, Stravinsky had the whole package worked out from the get-go with a choreographer, the immortal Vaslav Nijinsky.

In a previous discussion of dance, I griped about how dancers and choreographers mostly follow a karaoke approach, layering terribly clever and difficult presentation atop music which serves as mere wallpaper. As a musician, it makes me roll my eyes.

I mentioned that Jerome Robbins strikes me as a full-fledged musician. He didn't erect visual presentations atop audio backdrop; he understood music with a musician's sensibility, and his choreography was as musical as the music itself. Pure magic!

You can add Nijinsky to the small group of true choreographers (find a dvd of "The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky" if you can; here's Roger Ebert's swell review). His original choreography for Rite of Spring was restored in the late 1980s by the Paris Opera Ballet and by the Joffrey Ballet, and it's great. Here's Marie-Claude Pietragalla of the Paris Opera Ballet terrifying the bejesus out of you:

Credit Nijinksy for genius choreography and Stravinsky for genius composition. But check out Pietragalla, revealing the raw soul of dance. 

This is wildness - pagan and primordial rites from the woods of ancient Russia. She's not depicting wildness - seeming wild - she is that. 

For contrast, here's the Joffrey Ballet performing the Nijinksy version in the same year, demonstrating why 1. they're great, but 2. dance is considered prissy affectation by most of the public (nobody would ever use such a word to describe Pietragalla's performance). I've cued it up to the same portion, and you can see the Joffrey's skillful and talented lead performing the movements with wonderful grace, but she's seeming wild, not being wild. A depiction of wildness ("this time it's me!"), not the real thing. 

She depicts Nijinsky’s depiction. A photocopy of a photocopy. Feh.

Naturally, snarky cognoscente are largely nonplussed by Pietragalla's performance. I contributed this comment beneath the YouTube video:
To all who think Pietragalla is less than awe-inspiring here: You're demonstrating the problem with dropping the acculturated trappings and manners of ballet to utterly inhabit the wildness of such a character (rather than skillfully and tastefully depicting that wildness, as seen in the Joffrey version): the dancers, critics, and audiences who inhabit the ecosystem of acculturation will icily insist that she's doing it wrong.

There is no trace, no whiff, of a wasp-waisted lady-in-leotard at the barre in Paris starchily plying dainty pliés with tight hair bun and haughty countenance. Gone. Wiped clean. Here, instead, is a pagan primordial presence from the ancient Russian woods. The actual thing.

And these f-ing people want their starchy French lady.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love this!

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