New meditations have proved to me that
things should move ahead
H E N R I D E S A I N T -S I M O N
terribly sensitive to
certain physical beauties -dancing girls, etc.,
L O U I S - F E R D I N A N D C EL I N E
Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring?
What right had
to the Boston Herald
V I S I O N
A libretto, in Igor Stravinsky's hand, reads in translation:
The Rite of Spring is a musical choreographic work. It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring. The piece has no plot . . .
First Part: The Kiss of the Earth. The spring celebration . . . The pipers pipe and young men tell fortunes. The old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. They dance the spring dance. Games start . . . The people divide into two groups, opposing each other. The holy procession of the wise old men. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games, which come to a stop. The people pause trembling . . . The old men bless the spring earth . . . The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.
Second Part: The Great Sacrifice. All night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is consecrated as the victim and is twice pointed to by fate, being caught twice in the perpetual dance. The virgins honor her, the chosen one, with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one' to the old wise men. She sacrifices herself in the presence of the old men in the great holy dance, the great sacrifice. 1
M A Y 2 9 , 19 13
Many have claimed to describe it, that opening night performance of Le Sacre du printemps on May 29, 1913, a Thursday, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees: Gabriel Astruc, Romola Nijinsky, Igor Stravinsky, Misia Sert, Marie Rambert, Bronislava Nijinska, Jean Cocteau, Carl Van Vechten, Valentine Gross. Their accounts conflict on significant details. But one thing they all agree on: the event provoked a seismic response.
Many in the audience were exceptionally elegant that evening as they arrived for the 8:45 curtain. All were excited. For weeks rumors had circulated about the artistic delights that the Russian ballet company had prepared for the new Paris season. Advance publicity talked of the "real art," the "true art," an art not confined by space and time, that Paris would experience. Seat prices had been doubled. There was certainly an air of expectation. Debussy's Jeux, choreographed and danced by Nijinsky, had premiered a fortnight earlier, the first ballet ever performed in modern dress-- sports clothes of the day, in this case-- and had been given a cool reception even by those sympathetic to modern art. Great virtuosity had been expected of the new Vestris, Nijinsky; only childish movements, so many thought, had been performed. A "haphazard essay in affectation" Henri Quittard called the performance in Le Figaro, and suggested that the audience would have been happier just listening to the music. Many now anticipated that Le Sacre would make up for that disappointment and revive the enchantment
and sensation of previous "Russian seasons," when Parisian high society, together with the artistic and intellectual community, had been intoxicated by oriental bacchanals and other exotica.
This evening the beau monde was well represented. Against the black and white background of tails and the plush amaranth of the theater decor, tiaras sparkled and silk flowed. In addition to lavishly attired social snobs, there were aesthetic snobs too, who had come in ordinary suits, some with bandeaux, some with soft hats of one sort or another, which were considered a mark of revolt against the stiff toppers and bowlers of the upper classes. Gabriel Astruc claimed that there were about fifty passionate fans of the Russians present, including those he called "some radical Stravinsky-ites in soft caps."' Long hair, beards, and mustaches were also in abundance. Of the crowd of aesthetes, whether becapped or hirsute, who attended this and similar events Cocteau said that "they would applaud novelty at random simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes." In short, a readymade cheering section was present, prepared to do battle against sterility.
Dress, nonetheless, was no foolproof means of identifying artistic or any other inclination in 1913. Unpredictability was the smartest fashion. At a subsequent performance of Le Sacre, Gertrude Stein was to observe the poet Guillaume Apollinaire-- who proclaimed himself the "judge of this long quarrel between tradition and innovation" -in the seats below.
He was dressed in evening clothes and was industriously kissing various important looking ladies' hands. He was the first one of his crowd to come out into the great world wearing evening clothes and kissing hands. We were very amused and very pleased to see him do it.4
Shock and surprise, in other words, were the ultimate chic.
Regardless of attire, the audience on that opening night played, as Cocteau noted, "the role that was written for it." And what was that role? To be scandalized, of course, but, equally, to scandalize. The brouhaha surrounding Le Sacre was to be as much in the reactions of members of the audience to their fellows as in the work itself. The dancers on stage must have wondered at times who was performing and who was the audience.
Shortly after the wistful bassoon melody of the opening bars, the protests began, first with whistling. When the curtain went up and the dancers appeared, jumping up and down and toeing, against all convention, inward rather than outward, the howling and hissing started. "Having already made fun of the public once," wrote Henri Quittard in Le Figaro, referring to Jeux, "a repeat of the same joke, in such a heavy-handed way, was not in very good taste." To turn ballet, the most effervescent and fluid of art forms, into grotesque caricature was to insult good taste and the integrity of the audience. That was the attitude of the opposition. It felt offended. It jeered. Applause was the response of the defenders. And so the battle was joined.
Personal insults were certainly exchanged; probably some punches too; maybe cards, to arrange a semblance of satisfaction afterward. Whether a duel was fought the next morning as a result of the exchanges, as the melodramatic Romola Nijinsky asserts; whether a society lady actually spat in a man's face; whether the Comtesse de Pourtales did in fact, as Cocteau tells it, get up, coronet askew, waving her fan, and exclaim, "I am sixty years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me"; all of these details are froth on the meaning of the agitation. Of outrage and excitement there was plenty. Indeed, there was such a din that the music may have been almost drowned out at times.
But drowned out completely? Some reports leave the impression that no one, apart from the musicians in the orchestra and Pierre Monteux, the conductor, heard the music after the opening bars-- not even the dancers. Cocteau first and then Stravinsky have left us with a picture of Nijinsky standing in the wings, on a chair, shouting numbers to the dancers. But he did so because of the difficulty of the choreography and the lack of conventional rhythms in the musical score—Nijinsky had done this consistently in rehearsal-- rather than, as Cocteau and Stravinsky would have us believe, because of any problems the dancers had in hearing the orchestra. Valentine Gross, whose sketches of the Ballets russes were being exhibited that night in the foyer, has given us a delightfully airy but slightly preposterous account:
I missed nothing of the show which was taking place as much offstage as on. Standing between the two middle boxes, I felt quite at ease at the heart of the maelstrom, applauding with my friends. I thought there was something wonderful about the titanic struggle which must have been going on in order to keep these inaudible musicians and these deafened dancers together, in obedience to the laws of their invisible choreographer. The ballet was astoundingly beautiful.
Does the picture she paints here-- musicians who cannot be heard, dancers who cannot hear-- not have an abstract and absurd quality to it? And yet while, as she implies, she could not hear the music and while she did not know what rhythms the dancers were dancing to, Valentine Gross says she found the ballet "astoundingly beautiful"! Was she responding to what she heard and saw in the work of art presented, or was she responding in retrospect to the whole delicious affaire?
A touch of the modern dramatist is also present in Carl Van Vechten's accounts. He had been music and dance critic-- the first such creature in the United States-- for the New York Times before going to Europe in 1913 as drama critic of the New York Press. Some months earlier he had helped Mabel Dodge launch her famous salon in New York. "Cat-calls and hisses succeeded the playing of the first few bars," he wrote about the premiere of Le Sacre,
and then ensued a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause. We warred over art (some of us thought it was and some thought it wasn't) . . . Some forty of the protestants were forced out of the theater but that did not quell the disturbance. The lights in the auditorium were fully turned on but the noise continued and I remember Mlle. Piltz [the chosen maiden} executing her strange dance of religious hysteria on a stage dimmed by the blazing light in the auditorium, seemingly to the accompaniment of the disjointed ravings of a mob of angry men and women. 8
The image of the dancers dancing to the noise of the audience is wonderful, and telling. The audience was as much a part of this famous performance as the corps de ballet. And to which side did the ejected protesters belong? Forty of them? Surely that number would have required a whole detachment of security men to clear. And no one, not even the manager of the theater, Gabriel Astruc, makes any mention of such precautionary personnel in attendance or of such a large-scale evacuation. Moreover, Bronislava Nijinska claims, contrary to Van Vechten, that Maria Piltz's "dance of the chosen maiden" met with relative quiet.
Another version of the opening night excitement, which Van Vechten gave elsewhere, reveals that he is hardly a reliable source for detail. He apparently attended both the first and second performances of Le Sacre, and, to put it kindly, seems to have confused incidents from both.
I was sitting in a box in which I had rented one seat. Three ladies sat in front of me and a young man occupied the place behind me. He stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring, thanks to the potent force of the music, betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on the top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music. When I did, I turned around. His apology was sincere. We both had been carried beyond ourselves. 10
In this account the music obviously could be heard! Van Vechten would like us to believe that his is a description of the raucous opening night, but we know from Gertrude Stein that she was one of the "three ladies" sitting in front of Van Vechten, and she attended only the second performance on Monday! And according to Valentine Gross, who was present at all four performances of Le Sacre in Paris that May and June, the battle of the first night was not repeated. This merely suggests that Gertrude Stein's account is no more credible than the rest: "We could hear nothing . . . one literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music." 11 Literally? A score for over a hundred instruments could not be heard? Gertrude Stein went home with Alice B. Toklas and wrote not an article about the ballet but a poem, "The One," inspired by the stranger in her box, Carl Van Vechten. Perhaps she simply had not been listening
Whom are we to believe? Gabriel Astruc claims in his memoirs that he shouted from his box shortly after the beginning, on opening night, "Ecoutez d'abord! Vous sifflerez apres!"( Listen first! You can whistle afterward!) ' and that immediately, as if in response to the trident of Neptune, the storm abated: "The end of the work was heard in distinct quiet." Despite all the evident contradictions in the memoir accounts, these have been cited indiscriminately in all the secondary literature describing that opening night on May 19, 1913.
But what about the press reports? They are no more reliable than the memoirs in helping us determine exactly what happened. They were written by critics in attendance rather than by reporters in the strict sense, and consequently all displayed parti-pris attitudes similar to the divisions in the audience. The critical comments addressed themselves more thoroughly to Stravinsky's score than to Nijinsky's choreography-- a reflection of the training of the critics -but this at any rate would suggest that much of the music had in fact been audible.
Where does all this confusion leave us? ls there not sufficient evidence to suggest that the trouble was caused more by warring factions in the audience, by their expectations, their prejudices, their preconceptions about art, than by the work itself ? The work, as we shall see, certainly exploited tensions but hardly caused them. The descriptions of the memoirists and even the accounts of the critics are immersed in the scandale rather than the music and ballet, in the event rather than the art. None of the witnesses ever mentions the rest of the program that first evening, the reception accorded Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose, and Prince Igor. Some people, like Gertrude Stein, so captivated, even if in retrospect, by this early twentiethcentury "happening," have implied that they were present when they clearly were not. Can one blame them? To have been in the audience that evening was to have participated not simply at another exhibition but in the very creation of modern art, in that the response of the audience was and is as important to the meaning of this art as the intentions of those who introduced it. Art has transcended reason, didacticism, and a moral purpose: art has become provocation and event. Thus, Jean Cocteau, who in his staccato prose-- which corresponds so well with the percussive diction of Le Sacre-- has given us many of our lasting images of that opening night, did not hesitate to admit that he was more concerned with "subjective" than "objective" truth; in other words, with what he felt, what he imagined, not with what actually occurred. His account of what happened after the performance of Le Sacre-- his claim that he, along with Stravinsky, Nijinsky, and Diaghilev, drove out at two o'clock in the morning to the Bois de Boulogne and that Diaghilev, tears streaming down his face, started reciting Pushkin-- has been denied by Stravinsky and is a passage that is a piece of theater, poetry, and prose combined. But most of our other witnesses are of a similar kind.
Valentine Gross's images are equally literary: the composers Maurice Delage, "beetroot-red with indignation," and Maurice Ravel, "truculent as a fighting cock," and the poet Leon-Paul Fargue "spit ting out crushing remarks at the hissing boxes." The composer Florene Schmitt is said to have called the society ladies of the Sixteenth Arrondissement "whores" and the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian Empire "an old bum." Some have claimed that Saint-Saens went storming out early; Stravinsky has said that he was not even present. All this is the stuff of literature, or fact fermented by ego and memory and turned into fiction.
But what about the other camp, les pompiers, or philistines, as they were called by the aesthetes? Their testimony is naturally more limited. Most of the criticism poured out in the press almost immediately, yet it too was thoroughly engrossed in the event, in the social implications of the art, rather than the art itself.
Where does the fiction end and the fact begin? That boisterous evening rightly stands as a symbol of its era and as a landmark of this century. From the setting in the newly constructed, ultramodern The atre des Champs-Elysees, in Paris, through the ideas and intentions of the leading protagonists, to the tumultuous response of the audience, that opening night of Le Sacre represents a milestone in the development of "modernism," modernism as above all a culture of the sensational event, through which art and life both become a mat ter of energy and are fused as one. Given the crucial significance of the audience in this culture, we must look at the broader context of Le Sacre.
L E T H E A T R E D E S C H A M P S - E L Y S E E S
The avenue Montaigne runs between the Champs-Elysees and the place d'Alma in the Eighth Arrondissement. In an area of Paris that was redeveloped toward the end of the last century, the quarter had become fashionable with the haute bourgeoisie even before 1914. They lived there, as well as in Pare Monceau, Chaillot, Neuilly, and Passy. At number 13 on the arbored avenue stands the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Today the world's greatest artists perform there.
The theater is one of the finer examples of the work of Auguste Perret, whom some consider "the father of modern French architecture."' Constructed between 1911 and 1913, it belongs to the first
generation of buildings to be erected with reinforced concrete. But in addition to the use of new materials, steel and concrete in place of brick or stone, a major concern of Perret was to incorporate and project in his work what he regarded as a new honesty and simplicity of style. Together with his contemporary Tony Garnier, he reacted against the prevailing heavy composite styles from the past or the current mannered mode of art nouveau with its ornamentation and pretense. Clean lines and a new openness in the use of material were essential. "Like all architecture based on false principles," Garnier wrote, "ancient architecture is an error. Truth alone is beautiful. In architecture, truth is the result of calculations made to satisfy known necessities with known materials."
For its ostentatious age this was a bold and aggressive formulation which echoed similar statements by architects and urban planners elsewhere, especially in Germany and Austria. "Ornament is crime," insisted Adolf Loos. A young associate who worked mornings in Perret's office in 1908 and studied in the afternoons was a twenty one-year-old Swiss, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret. One day Perret asked the young man, who was later to take the name Le Corbusier, whether he had been to see the palace at Versailles yet. "No, I shall never go!" was the reply. "And why not?" "Because Versailles and the classical epoch are nothing but decadence!"
In 1902-1903, Perret had constructed an eight-story block of flats, at 25 rue Franklin, that was revolutionary in its use of materials and its spatial effects. Two columns of prominent bay windows seemed to hang suspended without support and focused attention on the radical application of glass and concrete in rectangular patterns. There was some relief on the facade, but contrary to art nouveau style, it did not impose itself on the eye. Graduates of the tradition minded Ecole des Beaux-Arts regarded the new composition, in light of its startling simplicity, as more a matter of engineering than of art. The Theatre des Champs-Elysees met with a similar response.
Most of the expensive construction of the era was straightforward imitation of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century style, with little imagination. That style itself was based on classical patterns revived first in Italy and then exported north. The syncretic mode of the Grand and Petit Palais, both a stone's throw from the avenue Montaigne and built for the international exhibition of 1900-- when Paris celebrated herself-- exemplified this imitative tendency. By comparison, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees looked barren. Its lines were dean, even cold. The ferroconcrete construction, with smooth
surfaces and sharp edges, exuded strength. Spaces for billboards were in perfect geometric relation to the other rectangular patterns in the facade, to the windows, the entrances, and the panels of sculptured hauts-reliefs, by Antoine Bourdelle, that constituted the only decoration on the exterior. In the vestibule an abundance of marble intensified the impression of cool reticence.
This was an architecture which was concerned, its designers claimed, with social needs and not individual whims, which preoccupied itself with authenticity and sincerity as opposed to pretense and hypocrisy. The overall austerity, compared with other public buildings, particularly the Opera, built only forty years earlier, surprised and offended many people; however. Even the main auditorium, while rich in color, amaranth and gold, with painted frescoes by Maurice Denis, left a sense of uncluttered space. Denis, one of the theoreticians of postimpressionism, urged art to move away from mimesis, the interpretation of reality through imitation. "We must close the shutters," he said.'
Many were prone to denounce the new theater as a product of foreign influence. After all, Auguste Perret was born in Belgium, at Ixelles near Brussels, whither his father, a mason, had fled, under sentence of death, because he had fired on the Louvre during the Commune of 1871. The family was by definition obviously hostile to the French tradition. The Flemish architect Henry Van de Velde, who had been involved in the initial planning for the building, was also an early reformer who, steeped in the ideas of the British arts and crafts movement, had turned from fine to applied arts, developing notions of what he called "free aesthetics." Most of his patrons were German and he taught in Germany. Because of all these foreign associations J. L. Forain, the artist, derided the new theater as "the Zeppelin on the avenue Montaigne." Emile Bayard, the prolific art critic, was reminded of a "funeral monument," and Alphonse Gosset, the architect, scoffed at the construct, alluding, too, to a German influence:
That the Germans, highly susceptible to sonorous singing, and hypnotic music, should accept this sort of reclusion, is perhaps understandable, but Parisians, avid of bright lights and elegance, no!
The inclination was to regard the building as an architectural affront to Parisian good taste, conviviality, and civility. The German reference is to be explained not merely in terms of hatred for.an enemy in an era of resurgent nationalism. Germany did indeed lead the way in the development of a new architectural style based on an acceptance of industry and of the inevitability of urban growth. Though still confronted with extensive opposition, in Germany the new architectural aesthetic had nevertheless passed the bounds of an avant-garde style embraced by a few individuals. By the end of the first decade of this century many of the leading schools and academies of art were under the direction of such progressive minded people as Peter Behrens in Dusseldorf, Hans Poelzig in Breslau, and Henry Van de Velde in Weimar. The influential German Werkbund, with its aggressive concern for quality, utility, and beauty in all industrial work, was founded in 1907 and profoundly affected a whole generation of students, among them Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In that same year, 1907, the mammoth German electrical company, Allgemeine Elektrizitats-Gesellschaft, appointed Peter Behrens its architectural adviser, an indication of how far the new ideas had already spread. In Austria developments were similar. One can see then that Auguste Perret was, in the minds of many Frenchmen, an agent provocateur in the spiritual employ if not outright pay of the Germans.
Charges similar to those leveled at Perret were also laid against Gabriel Astruc, the Parisian impresario who openly confessed that he, contrary to most Frenchmen in the years before 1914, was a xenophile, a lover of foreigners. An emotionally crapulous character, whose great passion was always the circus and who in his memoirs recounted with equal relish and animation his witnessing the execution by guillotine of four criminals on the one hand and his managerial accomplishments on the other, Astruc was descended from the Spanish Sephardim and was the son of a grand rabbi. He married into the music publishing firm of Enoch and, with financial help from the music lover and cultural benefactor Count Isaac de Camondo and his Turkish banking family, he established in April 1904 a promotion agency, the Societe Musicale.
Astruc brought to Paris a steady stream of outstanding foreign artists, such as Wanda Landowska and Arthur Rubinstein from Poland; Enrico Caruso, Lina Cavalieri, and Titta Ruffo to present in 1905 an "Italian season"; and the entire Metropolitan Opera from New York, with Arturo Toscanini, in 1910. Astruc also demanded credit for bringing to Paris a touring group of American blacks who introduced Parisians to Negro spirituals and the cakewalk.
From this base Astruc laid the foundations for an "international committee of artistic patronage," which provided distinguished moral support for visits and exchanges of international artists. The French section was headed by the beautiful and active Comtesse Greffuhle, whom Proust used as part model for both his Duchesse and his Princesse de Guermantes and whom another admirer considered a "goddess" who would have inspired Veronese and Tiepolo. The American representation included William K. Vanderbilt, John J. Astor, Clarence Mackay, James Stillman, and Pierpont Morgan. In London Lady de Grey enlisted the duchesses of Portland and Rutland and Sir Ernest Cassel, financier and friend of the king.
It was in l906 that Astruc began developing his plans for a new theater, and in the seven years it took for the idea to become reality he encountered a barrage of opposition: the management of the Opera and the Opera Comique feared competition, for the star system that Astruc promoted would raise prices and thin out audiences; furthermore, his emphasis on novelty would encourage the frivolous and ephemeral. Municipal and state officials questioned the wisdom and purpose of the theater. Anti-Semites maligned him as a money grubbing Jew interested in eroding established values. "It would take me a whole volume," Astrue wrote in typical turns of phrase in his memoirs, "to tell the true story, miraculous and disheartening, of the construction of 'my theater.' I know, not each stone because it is built of cement, but each metal fiber." Yet the theater was built and it had luminous financial backing-- Vanderbilt, Morgan, Stillman, Rothschild, Cassel-- as well as support, both moral and financial, from Otto H. Kahn, president of the New York Opera.
The theater opened on March 30, 1913. Lights projected onto the facade emphasized the building's whiteness, its simplicity, and highlighted the reliefs of Bourdelle's frieze, Apollo and the Muses. Ascruc observed the first-night audience arriving to hear the inaugural concert devoted to Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini and Weber's Der Freischiitz.
On entering the hall, people seemed first to be blinded. Then they looked. Some became excited. Others sniggered. The majority, before voicing an opinion, waited to hear that of their neighbor. The words "Munich," "neoclassical German" blended here and there.
Jacques-Emile Blanche heard similar responses -"Theosophist temple," "Belgian"-- but he was astute enough to note that both certain artistic motifs in the theater and its programs bowed noticeably to tradition. The whole enterprise was a symbolic attempt to synthesize modern and traditional impulses.' Paris, however, was not yet pre pared for such a resolution.
D I A G H IL E V A N D T H E B A L L E T S R U S S E S
"I am firstly a great charlatan," Serge Diaghilev wrote to his step mother in 1895, in a statement that has become justly famous because of its exuberance and its accuracy as a self-assessment,
though con- brio; secondly, a great charmeur; thirdly, I have any amount of cheek; fourthly, I am a man with a great quantity of logic, but with very few principles; fifthly, I think I have no real gifts. All the same, I think I have just found my true vocation - being a Maecenas. I have all that is necessary save the money – maist’a viendra.
Diaghilev's background was a welter of contraries, real and imagined. Perhaps the most profound of these contraries was that his birth occasioned his mother's death. Misia Sert, an equally extravagant character who was to become his dose friend, had a similar fate. Both seemed to be plagued throughout their lives with a sense of guilt for simply existing. Diaghilev's father was a provincial aristocrat who nonetheless indulged in business; he owned some large distilleries. A military man, he nevertheless had a serious and deep love for music. In the Russian context neither combination was regarded as unusual, but as the son became increasingly westernized, he began to labor under what he sensed were contradictions in his past and in his up bringing. Even though he tried as he grew older to adopt a cosmopolitan air, Diaghilev never renounced his provincial roots. Thus a tension always remained in him between the formative experience of his early life and the aspirations of his adult years.
Diaghilev began his studies at the university in St. Petersburg with the intention of becoming a lawyer; he continued them at the conservatory, studying composition. He wrote some songs and even a scene for an opera on the theme of Boris Godunov. He played the piano with panache and had a fine baritone voice, singing arias from Parsifal and Lohengrin in concert on at least one occasion. He
dabbled in painting as well. He did not become a lawyer or a composer or an artist. Romola Nijinsky relates that the musicians said of Diaghilev that he was not a musician, and the painters said that he was a dilettante, but both had generous comments about his abilities in the other art, in the same way that statesmen had said of Disraeli that he was a fine writer, and writers had acknowledged that he was a grand statesman. Still, Diaghilev's legal training and his interest in all the arts were to be combined in an astonishingly prod uctive manner.
With his family background, his education, and his social connections-- he had an uncle who was minister of the interior to the tsar in the 890s and who introduced him to court society-- Diaghilev had strong roots in a conservative imperial tradition. However, he was also clearly driven by countervailing instincts: the sense of having destroyed his mother and hence a sympathy for matriarchy; his homosexuality, which he accepted relatively early in life and which he seems to have enjoyed flaunting; and his aesthetic sensibility in general, which led him in his twenties to cultivate a dandyish appearance-- a gray streak in his otherwise jet-black hair, a neat mustache, a monocle and chain. He also encouraged the legend that his family was an illegitimate line from Peter the Great. There is nonchalance and anxiety here, posturing and guilt. He tried to combine the divergent tendencies for a time, working, for instance, as adviser to the administrator of the imperial theaters, but Diaghilev was not willing to repress, and the Russian establishment was not flexible enough to absorb, his antiestablishment sentiments and other extravagant behavior, which were interpreted as intolerable disrespect toward the imperial authorities, and he was fired in 1901. His departure was probably inevitable, because he was already extensively involved in entrepreneurial activities. He began to talk, like Peter the Great, about opening a window on Europe.
Having traveled through much of Europe in the early 1890s and having inherited his mother's money in 1893, when he reached the age of twenty-one, Diaghilev began his activities on a modest scale, initially as an art impresario, organizing exhibitions first of British and German watercolors for St. Petersburg, next of Scandinavian art, and then of Russian paintings, which he displayed in Russia and was later to bring to the rest of Europe. In 1898, with a group of friends, he founded a lavish and expensive publication called Miriskusstva (The World of Art), a journal that was to survive for six years and that, despite its relatively brief life and small circulation, which never exceeded four thousand,
provoked intense debate in Russian art circles by attacking both conservative academicism and radical social utilitarianism, and by promoting new trends in Western art, from impressionism to futurism. In 1899 he brought to St. Petersburg a show of French impressionists and other moderns that elicited great interest.
Diaghilev's international recognition began in 1905 with another of the paradoxes that marked his early years. In that year of war and revolution for Russia, when the Japanese devastated both the tsar's armies and his fleet, when protesting workers in St. Petersburg were massacred on "Bloody Sunday" by Cossack cavalry, when peasants burned and pillaged manor houses in the countryside, and when workers called a general strike that Trotsky would later term the Bolshevik "dress rehearsal for revolution," in this remarkable year Diaghilev, the dandy and aesthete, opened at the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg-- Catherine the Great had had it built for her lover Potemkin-- an astonishing display of Russian historical portraits he had assiduously collected in the provinces and borrowed from other parts of Europe. The exhibition, which received a generous subsidy from the tsar, opened in February and contained four thousand canvases, including thirty-five portraits of Peter the Great, forty-four of Catherine the Great, and thirty-two of Alexander I. Before the show dosed in May it had been visited by forty-five thousand people. Even the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, with all its publicity, would attract only five thousand more visitors. Russia had never seen such an imposing public statement on its official history. It must be emphasized that Diaghilev, the budding experimentalist who was to become manager extraordinary of the "modern spirit," launched himself from the foundations of the Russian past.
In the following year he organized a Russian exhibit for the Salon d'Automne in the Petit Palais in Paris. The presentation contained a cross section of material ranging from icons through eighteenth-century portraits to works by the World of Art circle, Mikhail Vrubel, Valentine Serov, Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Mstislav Dobujinsky, Nicholas Roerich, and Mikhail Larionov. The committee of patrons for the exhibition was headed by the Grand Duke Vladimir and included the Comtesse Greffuhle, who had probably the most elegant salon in Paris and whom Diaghilev met, impressed, and enlisted in supporting his project for the next year, a festival of Russian music.
Thereafter one success followed another. In 1907, between May 16 and 30, five concerts were given at the Opera, presenting a wide range of Russian music, with Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, and Glazunov conducting their own compositions. Among the singers were Chaliapin and Cherkasskaya. The sonorous and dramatic bass baritone in particular was an enormous success. The next year, 1908, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, in a revised version by Rimsky-Korsakov, was taken to Paris. The opera about the tsar who ruled from 1598 to 1605 and about the pretender Dmitri was not popular in St. Petersburg. Court society especially found offensive the parts of the story that called into question legitimacy, justice, and authority. Paris, however, seemed to love the work, above all Chaliapin's Boris. Misia Sert was spellbound: "I left the theater stirred to the point of realizing that something had been changed in my life. The music was with me always."
It was through the Comtesse Greffuhle that Diaghilev met Gabriel Astruc. Diaghilev had now presented to Paris Russian painting, Russian music, Russian opera, and, as he was to put it later, "from opera to ballet was but a step." The existence of outstanding Russian dancers who were completely unknown outside Russia was an important reason for the move into ballet. But there was a theoretical side that was perhaps even more important.
In a Wagnerian sally toward ultimate art Diaghilev claimed that ballet contained in itself all the other art forms. Wagner had conceived of opera as a higher form of drama and a further evolution of the Greek synthesis of music and word. In the opera, however, claimed Diaghilev, there were visual impediments, like stationary singers, and aural barriers, like the need to concentrate on words, all of which interfered with the necessary fluidity of art. "In the ballet," wrote Alexandre Benois, who exercised a great influence on Diaghilev, "I would point to the elemental mixture of visual and aural impressions; in the ballet is attained the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk about which Wagner dreamed and about which every artistically gifted person dreams."
In June 1911, Stravinsky, very much under the spell of Diaghilev, would cite the new gospel to Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, son of the composer:
I am interested in and love the ballet more than anything else . . . If some Michelangelo were alive today -so I thought looking at his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel -the only thing that his genius would admit and recognize is choreography . . . The only form of theatre art that makes its cornerstone the problems of beauty and nothing more is the ballet.
The search for the Gesamtkunstwerk-- for the holy grail that is the "total art form"-- was actually a universal one by the end of the nineteenth century. The arts, in part because of the enormous influence of Wagner, had moved steadily toward each other. Debussy, to introduce an example here to which we shall return later, would take a symbolist poem by Mallarme and use it as a basis for a tone painting not dissimilar in effect from impressionism in pictorial art.
Diaghilev and Astruc reached agreement, and on May 19, 1909, the Ballets russes -consisting of fifty-five dancers trained exclusively in the imperial ballet school and on temporary leave from the imperial theaters of St. Petersburg and Moscow-- opened in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet. That opening night, when the program consisted of Le Pavilion d'Armide, the ace of the opera Prince Igor that includes the Polovetsian dances, and Le Festin, is enshrined in the annals of ballet, and that whole Russian season of 1909 was a sensation. Ballet in Paris, as in most of Europe, had sunk by the end of the nineteenth century to a display merely of prettiness; pleasant, controlled steps and charming costumes; "a little Italian virtuosity," as Richard Buckle has put it, "tricked out with a lot of French coquetterie."
Stage decoration was not an art, only a craft left to artisans. The Russians changed all this. The sets of Bakst, Benois, and Roerich, with their bright and provocative colors and lavish features, such as authentic Georgian silk, were stunning, no longer merely a backdrop but an integral part of the spectacle. The choreography of Fokine called for a new energy and physical ability, captured breathtakingly in Nijinsky's leaps and Pavlova's and Karsavina's grace. Karsavina in her autobiography has an anecdote to relate about Nijinsky that reveals as much about the latter's mentality as it does about the effect of his agility.
Somebody was asking Nijinsky if it was difficult to stay in the air as he did while jumping; he did not understand at first, and then very obligingly: "No! No! not difficult. You have to just go up and then pause a little up there."
The themes were exotic, usually Russian or oriental. The music was different. And the dance was not simply an attempt to relate movement to sound but to express sound in movement.
So, in 1909, fifteen years after a diplomatic alliance had been ratified between the Quai d'Orsay and. St. Petersburg in response to the German threat, Paris finally encountered the Russians. Proust commented:
This charming invasion, against whose seductions only the most vulgar critics protested, brought on Paris, as we know, a fever of curiosity less acute, more purely aesthetic, but perhaps just as intense as that aroused by the Dreyfus case.
In 19IO the Russians returned to Paris and then played the Theater des Westens in Berlin. In 1911, to escape from the perpetual problems of borrowing dancers from their regular companies and to achieve some independence, Diaghilev formed his own company, the Ballets russes de Diaghilev, and over the next years, 1911 to 1913, the ballet toured Europe -Monte Carlo, Rome, Berlin, London, Vienna, Budapest -and left a trail of excitement, incredulity, and rapture. Many young aesthetes recorded their exuberance. Of the first performance of Scheherazade, Proust told Reynaldo Hahn that he had never seen anything quite so beautiful. Harold Acton described that production:
. . . the heavy caln before the storm in the harem: the thunder and lightning of negroes in rose and amber; the fierce orgy of clamorous caresses; the final panic and bloody retributions: death in long-drawn spasms to piercing violins. Rimsky-Korsakov painted the tragedy; Bakschung it with emerald curtains and sliver lamps and carpeted it with rugs from Bokhara and silken cushions; Nijinsky and Karsavina made it live. For many a young artist Scheherazade was an inspiration equivalent to Gothic architecture for the Romantics or Quattrocento frescoes for the pre-Raphaelites.
Rupert Brooke, the handsome and gifted young poet who became a symbol of the spiritual confusion and yearning of his generation, was ecstatic after first seeing the Russians in 1912: "They, if anything, can redeem our civilization. I'd give everything to be a ballet designer."" In 1911 London was introduced to the Russian company. On June 26, Diaghilev's troupe performed at Covent Garden at the coronation gala for King George V amidst 100,000 roses used as decoration and before an audience that included ambassadors and ministers, African kings, Indian chiefs, maharajahs and mandarins, and
the cream of British society. "Thus, in one evening," Diaghilev quipped, "the Russian ballet conquered the whole world." The Illustrated London News was so taken by the Russian achievement that it called for the creation of a permanent dance company at Covent Garden; and the Times was so enthusiastic that it began to print regular articles on dance. In its issue of July 5, Punch had three cartoons related to dance, an indication of how striking the impact of the Russians had been. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and King Alfonso of Spain eventually became patrons of the Ballets russes.
With every season Diaghilev became more daring. The eroticism became more overt. It was there from the start, in Cleopatra in the 1909 season-- the tale about a queen who seeks a lover willing to die at dawn after a night of love-- with its wild bacchanal scene of quickening tempi, great leaps of the Ethiopians, tossing flesh, and waves of silk and gold. But it became bolder. That caused the excitement to turn in some quarters to disquietude.
The scandale of the 1912 season was the premiere in Paris on May 29 of Debussy's L'Apriis-midi d'un Faune, inspired by Mallarme's poem, choreographed and danced by Nijinsky, with art nouveau sets and costumes by Bakst. The story is about a Roman deity, a faun, with horns and a tail, who falls in love with a young wood nymph. Nijinsky, dressed in leotards at a time when skin-tight costumes were still thought to be improper, provoked in the audience a collective salivation and swallowing as he descended, hips undulating, over the nymph's scarf, and quivered in simulated orgasm. That was simply the culmination of a ballet that broke all the rules of traditional taste. The entire work was staged in profile in an attempt to reproduce the images of classical bas-reliefs and vase paintings. Movements, both walking and running, were almost entirely lateral, always heel to toe, followed by a pivot on both feet and a change of position of arms and head. Gaston Calmette, editor of Le Figaro, refused to publish the review prepared by the regular dance correspondent, Robert Brussel, and instead penned a front-page article himself in which he denounced Faune as "neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent." 13
Calmette was to move from one onslaught to the next in 1912-1913. When Auguste Rodin sprang to the defense of Nijinsky, Calmette berated him as an immoral dilettante who squandered public
funds. In December 1913 Calmette would begin his last campaign, an attack this time against Joseph Caillaux, former prime minister and now minister of finance in the new Doumergue government. On March 16, 1914, Henriette Caillaux, the minister's wife, took a taxi to the Figaro offices in rue Drouot, waited patiently for an hour to see the chief editor, then walked with him into his private office and emptied her automatic pistol at him. Hit by four of six shots, he died that evening.
Other members of the public were apparently also offended by Faune, and the final scene was modified slightly in subsequent performances. But the aesthetes were elated by the beauty of this "offense against good taste." Leon Bakst thought the choreography the work of a genius, and Diaghilev himself, at first hesitant about even accepting this extraordinary manifestation of Nijinsky's independence, nonetheless recognized its brilliance. The artist and designer Charles Ricketts even celebrated Calmette's “murder." The wits of course worked overtime. One quip to surface: "Faune y soit qui mal pense…”
Nijinsky's deliberate provocation in Faune was symptomatic of an ever-increasing boldness in the choreography and musical language of the Russians. Fokine had led the departure from the conventions of classical ballet by cutting down on brilliant steps and vinuosity and by emphasizing interpretation of the music. He despised meaningless displays of strength. "The dance," he insisted, "need not be a divertissement. It should not degenerate into mere gymnastics. It should, in fact, be the plastic word. The dance should express . . . the whole epoch to which the subject of the ballet belongs.”
Nijinsky then added a new dimension to the revolt and reached a new stage in the quest for a "plasticity" of movement and image. In addition to Faune and Le Sacre he choreographed Jeux, which opened the season in 1913. It was a mixture of classical steps and "anticlassical" poses. At the beginning Nijinsky arrived onstage, with a traditional grand jete, in pursuit of a somewhat oversized tennis ball, but some of the unusual positions that were to dominate Le Sacre now appeared, poses, for instance, with arms rounded and feet turned inward. The public was hardly enthusiastic about what was purported to be a new verisimilitude in dance. Where was that honesty? it asked. Perhaps in Nijinsky's mind, certainly not on the stage. Although the ballet was supposed to revolve around a
tennis match, the choreography bore little resemblance to any game. Even Debussy, a musical reformer himself, was astounded by the audacity. He called Nijinsky
a perverse genius . . . a young savage . . . This fellow adds up triple crochets with his feet. checks them on his arms, then suddenly, half paralyzed, he stands crossly watching the music slip by. It's awful.
When Jeux came to London, Punch took one of its pokes at both the disenchanted audience and Nijinsky.
are certain souls
In all your
other bailee roles,
The music chosen by Diaghilev for his ballet company became more abstract as well. The Russian composers whom he used early on were relatively orthodox, though the melodic line usually consisted of exotic themes to which western ears were not accustomed. Debussy's impressionistic compositions marked a departure in a more experimental direction, with their new harmonic patterns and interest in sounds for their own sake without reference to melody. Debussy's concern was with "delicate feelings," with "elusive moments," rather than with the overwhelming harmonic patterns of the German school of the era. Fleeting emotions, wisps of sensation, the bubbles in the champagne, these were attributes of the impressionists, who marked an important stage in the breakdown of romantic music and in the move toward an internalized music of expressionism.
By the end of the first decade of the new century, with the help of the impressionists, the manner of composition was changing radically. From Mozart until the late nineteenth century, music was put together with relatively large building blocks: scales, arpeggios, long cadences. However, by the end of the century these units were being discarded. Music had been reduced to individual notes or, at most, short motifs. As in architecture, the arts and crafts movement, and painting, there was a new emphasis on basic materials, primary colors, and elemental substance.
There was nothing accidental about the scandals caused by Diaghilev and his Ballets russes. This "charlatan con brio" was a master-mind at provocation. "It is success and only success, my friend," he wrote to Benois in 1897, "that saves and redeems all . . . I do have a rather vulgar insolence and I am accustomed to telling people to go to hell." He was a Nietzschean creation, a supreme egotist out to conquer, and he succeeded in becoming the despot of a cultural empire that affected, primarily through the medium of ballet, ail the arts of his time, including fashion, literature, theater, painting, interior design, and even cinema. Jacques-Emile Blanche called him a "professor of energy, the will that gives body to others' conceptions."" Benois was to say "Diaghilev had in him everything it takes to be a duce." His public importance was in his achievement as a manager, as a propagandist, as a duce, and less as a creative person. As a theorist he plundered other people's ideas; as an impresario, he plundered, in Napoleonic dragonnades, the world of art. His creation was his management, his shaping of shapes, and in this role he was a brilliant artistic condottiere. As such he became central to twentieth century aesthetic sense, to the enshrinement of attitudes and styles rather than substance. He was a figurehead of the aesthetics of technique. People wrote long letters to him; he replied by telegram.
This does not mean, however, that Diaghilev did not have a positive view of art. He did, but his approach was intuitive, not analytical. Many have noted how he would seize upon an idea or project immediately, before he had had an opportunity to examine it. While the World of Art journal forced him constantly to formulate aesthetic ideas and to make decisions on the basis of these ideas, he never succeeded in assembling a clear and consistent philosophy of art. He did, nevertheless, build on certain premises.
He conceived of art as a means of deliverance and regeneration. The deliverance would be from the social constraints of morality and convention, and from the priorities of a western civilization-- of which Russia was becoming increasingly a part-- dominated by a competitive and self-denying ethic. The regeneration would involve the recovery of a spontaneous emotional life, not simply by the intellectual elite, although that was the first step, but ultimately by society as a whole. Art, in this outlook, is a life force; it has the invigorating power of religion; it acts through the individual but in the end is greater than that individual; it is in fact a surrogate religion.
Social conscience did not motivate this thinking. Like Nietzsche, Diaghilev believed that autonomy of the artist and morality were mutually exclusive. A man obsessed with morality, with socially acceptable behavior, could never be free, and like Gide, Riviere, and Proust, he believed that the artist, to achieve freedom of vision, must have no regard for morality. He must be amoral. Morality, as the avant-garde was wont to say, was an invention des laids, the revenge of the ugly. Liberation to beauty would come not through collective effort but through egotism, through a personal salvation and not through social works.
Although Diaghilev paid homage to history and the accomplishments of western culture, he did see himself essentially as a pathfinder and liberator. Vitality, spontaneity, and change were celebrated. Any thing was preferable to stultifying conformism, even moral disorder and confusion. Oscar Wilde's sally that "there is no sin except stupidity" expressed Diaghilev's sentiments too. Social and moral absolutes were thrown overboard, and art, or the aesthetic sense, became the issue of supreme importance because it would lead to freedom.
Diaghilev was of course merely a part, though an immensely significant one, of a much broader cultural and intellectual trend, a revolt against rationalism and a corresponding affirmation of life and experience that gained strength from the 1890s on. The romantic rebellion, which, with its distrust of mechanistic systems, extended back over a century, coincided at the fin de siecle with the rapidly advancing scientific demolition of the Newtonian universe. Through the discoveries of Planck, Einstein, and Freud, rational man undermined his own world. Science seemed thus to confirm important tendencies in philosophy and art. Henri Bergson developed his idea of "creative evolution," which rejected the notion of "objective" knowledge: the only reality is the elan vital, the life force. He became a veritable star in fashionable circles in Paris. And the Italian futurist Umberto Boccioni, reflecting the widespread preoccupation with machines and change, declared, "There is no such thing as a nonmoving object in our modern perception of life." Diaghilev was attuned to these developments, which hailed a will to constant metamorphosis and praised the beauty of transitoriness. He grasped the new wave with exhilaration. "Qui n'avance pas recule," he decided. (He who does not advance retreats.)
In this context, where rationalist notions of cause and effect were rejected and the importance of the intuitive moment stressed, shock and provocation became important instruments of art. For Diaghilev art was not meant to teach or imitate reality; above all, it was to provoke genuine experience. Through the element of shock he hoped to achieve in his audience what Gide tried to elicit from his protagonist Lafcadio in Les Caves du Vatican, which was published in 1914: an acte gratuit, behavior free of motivation, purpose, meaning; pure action; sublime experience free of the constraints of time or place. "Etonne-moi, Jean!" (Surprise me, Jean!) Diaghilev said to Cocteau on one occasion, and the latter came to look on that moment and utterance as a road-to-Damascus experience. Surprise is freedom. The audience, in Diaghilev's view, could be as important to the experience of art as the performers. The art would not teach-- that would make it subservient; it would excite, provoke, inspire. It would unlock experience.
In his belief that art had to draw more of its content from popular folk traditions and that only in this way could the gap be bridged between popular and high culture, Diaghilev followed in the footsteps of Rousseau, Herder, and the romantics. It was in the Russian countryside, primitive and unaffected by mechanization, that Diaghilev and his circle found much of their inspiration, in the designs and colors of peasant costumes, the paintings on carts and sleighs, the carvings around windows and doors, and the myths and fables of an unassuming rural culture. It was, according to Diaghilev, from this Russian soul that salvation would come for western Europe. "Russian art," he wrote in March 1906 before his first exhibition there, "will not only begin to play a role; it will also become, in actual fact and in the broadest meaning of the word, one of the principal leaders of our imminent movement of enlightenment."
Diaghilev acknowledged his intellectual debts: to a conservative Russian culture rooted in an aristocratic tradition; to a wave of modern thought that stretched back a century and that had a strong German component, in E. T. A. Hoffmann, Nietzsche, and Wagner, among others; and to a growing appreciation, particularly in Russia, Germany, and eastern Europe, of what the Germans called Volk culture. But while he possessed a strong sense of history, his sights were set on the future. He followed the manifestoes and exploits of the futurists with interest, and showed a special fondness for
the art of the Russian futurists Larionov and Goncharova. He did not despise technology as some aesthetes did but looked on the machine as a central component of the future. On New Year's Day 1912, Nijinsky and Karsavina danced Le Spectre de la Rose at the Opera in Paris at a gala honoring French aviation. As an impresario, Diaghilev was keenly aware of the importance of modern methods of publicity and advertisement, and he had no compunction in resorting to exaggeration, ambiguity, and impertinence in his pursuit of success.
The goal of his grand ballet was to produce a synthesis-- of all the arts, of a legacy of history and a vision of the future, of orientalism and westernism, of the modern and the feudal, of aristocrats and peasants, of decadence and barbarism, of man and woman, and so on. He wished to fuse the double image of contemporary life-- an age of transition-- into a vision of wholeness, with emphasis, however, on the vision rather than the wholeness, on the quest, the striving, on the pursuit of wholeness, continuing and changing though this had to be. He meant, in Faustian temper, to overcome and integrate. The "either-or" decision that ethics called for he rejected in favor of an aesthetic imperialism chat, like Don Giovanni, craved everything. Here was a hunger for wholeness that nevertheless, because of its emphasis on experience, celebrated the hunger more than the wholeness.
R E B E L L I O N
Diaghilev's ballet enterprise was both a quest for totality and an instrument of liberation. Perhaps the most sensitive nerve it touched-- and this was done deliberately-- was that of sexual morality, which was so central a symbol of the established order, especially in the heart of political, economic, and imperial power, western Europe. Again, Diaghilev was simply an heir to a prominent, accumulating tradition. For many intellectuals of the nineteenth century, from Saint-Simon through Feuerbach to Freud, the real origin of "alienation," estrangement from self, society, and the material world, was
sexual. "Pleasure, joy, expands man," wrote Feuerbach; "trouble suffering, contracts and concentrates him; in suffering man denies the reality of the world."
The middle classes, in particular, of the Victorian age interpreted pleasure in primarily spiritual and moral rather than physical or sensual terms. Gratification of the senses was suspect, indeed sinful. Will, based on moral fervor, was the essence of successful human endeavor; pure passion, its opposite. That the issue of sexual morality should become a vehicle of rebellion against bourgeois values for the modern movement was inevitable. In the art of Gustav Klimt, in the early operas of Richard Strauss, in the plays of Frank Wedekind, in the personal antics of Verlaine, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde, and even in the relaxed morality of the German youth movement, a motif of eroticism dominated the search for newness and change. In the United States Max Eastman shouted, "Lust is sacred! "
The sexual rebel, particularly the homosexual, became a central figure in the imagery of revolt, especially after the ignominious treatment Oscar Wilde received at the hands of the establishment. Of her Bloomsbury circle of gentle rebels Virginia Woolf said, "The word bugger was never far from our lips.” Andre Gide, after a long struggle with himself, denounced publicly le mensonge des moeurs, the moral lie, and admitted his own predilections. Passion and love, he had concluded, were mutually exclusive. And passion was much purer than love.
Diaghilev's sexual proclivities were well known, and he made no attempt to mask them; quite the reverse. Stravinsky said later that Diaghilev's entourage was "a kind of homosexual Swiss Guard.” Not surprisingly, a sexual tension pervaded the whole experience of the Ballets russes, among performers, managers, hangers-on, and audience. Some of the ballet themes were openly erotic, even sado-masochistic, as in Cleopatre and Scheherazade: in both, young slaves pay for sexual pleasures with their lives. In others the sexuality was veiled. In Petrushka the puppet dies frustrated in his love for a cruel doll. Nijinsky was to claim later in his diary, written six years after the first performance, that Jeux, with its cast of one man and two girls, was Diaghilev's way of presenting, without danger of outright censure, his own fantasy, apparently often stated to Nijinsky, of making love to two men.' Whether or not this was a fabrication of Nijinsky's dementia-- the diary was written at the end of the Great War as Nijinsky was slipping into madness-- it is not inconsistent with Diaghilev's behavior.
In all the ballets, the colors of the sets, the boldness of the costumes, and the sustained energy of the dancing accentuated the passion. Poets wrote odes to Anna Pavlova; they sang praises to the
beautiful Karsavina and Rubinstein; but every aesthete in Europe seemed to be in love with the "grace and brutality," to use Cocteau's words, of Nijinsky. Appropriately, he was barred from dancing at the Imperial Theater in Moscow after a performance before the dowager empress in 1911 in Giselle, in which he wore nothing over his tights and displayed, in Peter Lieven's words, his "rotundites com pletement impudiques."' From his extraordinary levitation in Le Spectre de la Rose to the scandalous finale of L' Apres-midi d'un Faune to the provocative choreography of Jeux, Nijinsky with his physical prowess and his mental audacity, with his combination of innocence and daring, caught the imagination of an entire generation. The erotic thrill Parisians derived was underlined by the full-page picture of him in L'Ilustration with the caption "Dancer Nijinsky more talked of than debates in the Chamber." "An idiot of genius" the highly sexed Misia Sert called him in a telling phrase. Diaghilev, always aroused by public acclaim, took Nijinsky as his lover after the outstanding success of the l909 season. The two men lived together for a time, and when Nijinsky suddenly married in 1913, the dancer seemed genuinely not to have understood the reason for Diaghilev's outrage. "If it is true that Serge does not want to work with me-- then I have lost everything," Nijinsky wrote to Stravinsky in December 1913. "I cannot imagine what has happened, what is the reason for his behavior. Please ask Serge what is the matter, and write to me about it." It was this stunning naivete-- the suggestion that he was not burdened by the moral baggage of centuries, what Gide called the moral lie-- combined with the venturesomeness of his artistic imagination that excited Proust, Cocteau, Lytton Strachey, and others to a feverish pitch. Nijinsky was the faun, a wild creature temporarily trapped by society. Imagine, they said to themselves, this incredible physical specimen, given to instinct and passion, free of moral constraint . . . and they became delirious in their imaginings. Strachey sent "a great basket of magnissime flowers" and went to bed, as he himself declared, "dreaming of Nijinsky."
From the age of chivalry, but particularly since romanticism, woman-- das ewig Weibliche (The eternally feminine)-- had been the source of poetic inspiration and the object of lyrical worship. In the performing arts it was the diva, the prima donna, the ballerina, who was applauded and
showered with flowers. But now a man, of grace and beauty, took the spotlight. This was truly revolutionary. For some it was outrageous. An aura of decadence surrounded the Ballets russes as a whole. Robert de Fiers and Gaston de Cavaillet had a character in their play, Le Bois sacre, say, "We're starting to become very elegant gents, to make very chic acquaintances, very rotten, very Ballets russes."
That dance-- the attempt to join mind and body in the same rhythm-- became an important medium for the modern movement was natural. Although the Egyptians and Greeks had danced, Christian civilization had no place for dance, and it was not until after the Renaissance and Reformation, with their attendant secularization, that dance as an expression of imagination re-emerged. However, it was still associated almost exclusively with aristocratic court culture or, of course, with pagan activities. The Protestant ethic continued to reject dance as an expression of sensuality and passion. Classical dance emerged in France and Italy but with distinct national variations: the Italians stressed virtuosity, and the French laid emphasis on the creation of a romantic mood; but even in these countries ballet had sunk by the end of the nineteenth century into a rigid formalism that left little room for individual expression. In Britain and Germany dance had disappeared into virtual oblivion.
It was from Russia that the revival came. There, among the old aristocracy and court society, the "French style," with imported dancers and choreographers, experienced a growing popularity in the course of the nineteenth century. The principal theater was the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. In the second half of the century, through the Marseillais Marius Petipa and the Swede Christian Johannsen, a significant attempt was launched in St. Petersburg to combine the French and the Italian styles, elegance with virtuosity, emphasizing a new flow, a "dance of the arms," as it came to be called. Such was the beginning of the Russian school, and it was on these foundations that Diaghilev built, seeing in ballet a superior art form for expressing, through action and movement instead of persuasion and argument, the totality of the human personality, both spiritual and physical, and the essence of the nonverbal, non-rational world. One critic noted perceptively that the Russian ballet was the "cinematograph du riche.”
Diaghilev was not the first to introduce an openly erotic note to dance. There was a strong measure of sexual fantasy in Isadora Duncan's dancing and, indeed, in her success. Having read Nietzsche, this American from San Francisco decided that her art was original Dionysian art, before Apollo intellectualized emotion and turned dance from passion into style and drained it of purity and vitality. She claimed to represent spontaneity and natural expression, to capture impromptu form. She wanted to "free" both the body and the emotions of constraints and allow the two to join "organically." Yet she was less of an innovator than she liked to think: despite her claims, she could not escape classical Greece and the curved serpentine line that had dominated ballet since the romantics. Duncan's lusty and fertile personality was as much a creative force as her dance, and she had great success throughout Europe in the years after the turn of the century. In Germany the legend sprang up of "die heilige, gottliche Isadora” ( The holy, divine Isadora.)
It was Nijinsky who brought, as the Times of London put it, the "real revolution in dancing."" In 1828 Carlo Blasis had written, in The Code of Terpsichore, "Take care to make your arms so encircling that the points of your elbows may be imperceptible," and the curve conquered the straight line. Invariably in classical ballet grace and charm became more important than character and interpretation. While Fokine moved back toward interpretation, Nijinsky insisted on expressiveness with a vengeance, deliberately rebelling against "the line of beauty," the accustomed pleasure of the eye. He took special care in his choreography to make the points of his elbows not only perceptible but inescapable.
Duncan was the instrument through which the ideas of eurhythmics, the study of rhythm, and "aesthetic gymnastics" were popularized. Emile Jaques-Dalcroze set up an influential school for the former-- first in Geneva, then in Hellerau near Dresden-- and Diaghilev and Nijinsky visited it in 1912. to obtain help for Le Sacre. These developments corresponded with a new Leibesk kultur, or "body culture," which found its greatest social resonance in Germany and Russia but surfaced elsewhere in such phenomena as "muscular Christianity," the Boy Scout movement, the origins of the modern Olympics, and, not least, the Poirer fashion revolution, which offered women freedom from corsets and a new, glittering, slouching sensuality. For the first time in a century trim bodies became
fashionable, particularly in Paris. Dance, both serious and popular, seemed central to the whole trend. In 1911 every major music hall in London booked a ballerina for performance, and the implications of this provided rich material for Punch.
At the Crematorium the chief attraction is Fri. Rollmops, whose dancing is full of the most singular suggestiveness. In one of her measures, appropriately entitled Liebelei, she does some incredible things - with her calves, which are made to express a wide variety of emotions -now of coaxing tenderness, now of burning passion, and in the end of contemptuous rejection . . . M. Djujitsovitch, who is to be seen at the Pandemonium, has introduced a dance which nightly holds an over-crowded house in an unparalleled grip. Attention is first riveted by a spasmodic twitching of the knee-cap; the movement then gradually spreads to other sections of the body, the dance finishing with a tremendous tour de force in the form of a concerted jerk of the Adam's apple and the Achilles tendon. The new Sardinian dancer at the Empyrean, Signora Rigli, created an immense furore at her first appearance the other evening. In the chief item of her repertoire she achieves an amazing sensation by a deft manipulation of her collar-bone, which is seen to move in a sinuous wave, culminating in a shudder that leaves the spectator clammy with a nameless terror. It has been left to Miss Truly Allright, who comes here with a big reputation from the States, to demonstrate to a British audience the subtle, yet staggering effect that can be produced in a dance bringing into play the muscles of the ears. In a wonderful "Wag-rime" number she employs choice organs with irresistible charm, and the final flap invariably brings down the house. We are asked to state that owing to a slight dislocation sustained at rehearsal, Mlle. Cuibotio, the "Venezuelan Venus," will be unable to give her famous spinal-cord dance at the Capitolium this week. 14
Popular dance was changing rapidly as well. The turkey trot and the tango became the rage of 1912 and 1913, to the chagrin of conservative-minded establishments throughout Europe and America. Churchmen, politicians, and administrators denounced what they regarded as lewd public displays. Letter columns of newspapers and periodicals were full of comments on the subject. Boston dance halls banned the tango; certain Swiss hotels prohibited the new "American" steps; a Prussian officer was killed by a general over the question of the propriety of the turkey trot; and the kaiser tried to
forbid his army and navy officers from doing the new dances, at least when in uniform. But the rage spread, and Jean Richepin was motivated to lecture to the French Academy in October 1913 on the tango. The world of 1893, when a French manual of etiquette had declared that a respectable young man would never sit on the same settee as a young woman, seemed, twenty years later, positively medieval.
C O N F R O N T A TI O N A N D L I B E R A T I O N
If Diaghilev was increasingly bent on confrontation and sensation, so were his collaborators. In retrospect the preparations for Le Sacre have an almost conspiratorial air. By 1913 Stravinsky was caught up in his own importance, and with Le Sacre he had every intention of setting the musical and ballet world on its ear. His international reputation had blossomed in 1910 and 1911 with the sudden success of Firebird and Petrushka. The piano score to Le Sacre he completed in November 1912 and the orchestration finally in March 1913.
"The idea of The Rite of Spring came to me," Stravinsky said later, "while I was still composing The Firebird. I had dreamed a scene of pagan ritual in which a chosen sacrificial virgin dances herself to death." Asked on another occasion what he loved most about Russia, he answered: "The violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking. That was the most wonderful event of every year of my childhood."' And so the theme of Le Sacre was birth and death, Eros and Thanatos, primitive and violent, the fundamental experiences of all existence, beyond cultural context. Although the emphasis eventually was on the positive aspects of the theme-- spring, its accompanying rites, and life-- the initial title Stravinsky assigned to the score was revealing and hardly affirmative: The Victim. And in the libretto the last tableau involves, of course, the sacrifice of the chosen maiden. The ballet ends with the enactment of a death scene in the midst of life. The usual interpretation of the ballet is that it is a celebration of life through death, and that a maiden is chosen for sacrificial death in order to honor the very qualities of fertility and life that she exemplifies. And yet in the end, because of the importance attached to death in the ballet, to the violence associated with regeneration, to the role of "the victim," Le Sacre may be regarded as a tragedy.
Whether the eventual title was original or borrowed is uncertain. The notion of regeneration and rebirth was to be found in much avant-garde activity at the turn of the century. The title of the Austrian Secessionists' journal was Ver Sacrum, or Sacred Spring. Frank Wedekind's play about the sexual problems of adolescents was called Friihlingserwachen, or Spring Awakening. Excerpts from Proust's work were published in Le Figaro in March 1912 with the title "Au Seuil du printemps" ("On the Threshold of Spring").
Stravinsky initially discussed his brainchild with Nicholas Roerich, the painter who would eventually design the sets for the ballet, and then he put the idea for his "primitive ballet" to Diaghilev. The latter was immediately taken by it. So too was Nijinsky when he became party to the project. Indeed, all were so excited and so concerned with the potential for fundamental innovation that they considered Fokine too conservative to serve as choreographer for the score. At the end of 19!2, Stravinsky, under the impression that Fokine might nonetheless be the choreographer, wrote to his mother from Monte Carlo:
Diaghilev and Nijinsky are mad about my new child, Le Sacre du printemps. The unpleasant fact is that it will have to be done by Fokine, whom I consider an exhausted artist, one who traveled his road quickly and who writes himself out with each new work. Scheherazade was the high point of his achievement and, consequently, the beginning of his decline . . . New forms must be created, and the evil, the greedy, and the gifted Fokine has not even dreamed of them. At the beginning of his career he appeared to be extraordinarily progressive, but the more I knew of his work, the more I saw that in essence he was not new at all.
Novelty, then, was a sine qua non for Stravinsky. "I cannot . . . compose what they want from me," he complained later to Benois, "which would be to repeat myself." This was Fokine's mistake as a choreographer; this was the mistake of other composers: "That is why people write themselves out."' And Stravinsky had no intention of losing his shock value.
Fokine was already upset with Diaghilev for permitting Nijinsky to choreograph Faune, and by the end of 1912 the rupture was complete. Nijinsky was chosen to do Le Sacre. That he was now intent on breaking with convention far more dramatically than in Faune is clear. There was even an apocalyptic
note to his temper. In December 1912, for instance, Nijinsky transmitted to Richard Strauss, via Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a request that Srrauss compose for him "the most unrestrained, the least dance-like music in the world." "To be taken by you," Hofmannsthal wrote to Strauss, "beyond all bounds of convention is exactly what he longs for; he is, after all, a true genius and just where the track is uncharted, there he desires to show what he can do, in a region like the one you opened up in Elektra."4
Preparations for Le Sacre took place while the Ballets russes toured Europe during the winter of 1912-1913, from Berlin to Budapest and Vienna, to Leipzig and Dresden, to London, and finally to Monte Carlo for rest and rehearsal. From Leipzig, Nijinsky wrote to Stravinsky, on January 25, 1913:
Now I know what Le Sacre du printemps will be when everything is as we both want it: new, beautiful, and utterly different-- but for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience.
As the rehearsals mounted in number, Nijinsky began to have trouble with his dancers, who found his ideas incomprehensible and his style devoid of identifiable beauty. Still, though there were some initial disagreements about tempi, Stravinsky was full of admiration for Nijinsky's accomplishment. "Nijinsky's choreography is incomparable," he asserted shortly after the opening.
Everything is as I wanted it, with very few exceptions. But we must wait a long time before the public grows accustomed to our language. Of the value of what we have already accomplished I am convinced, and this gives me the strength for further work.
Pierre Monteux, the conductor at the premiere, termed most of the traditional music he had to conduct la sale musique (Rotten music.) and consequently was very excited about Stravinsky's work. In a letter of March 30 he reported to the composer:
Yesterday I finally rehearsed all three works [Firebird, Petrushka, and Le Sacre]. What a pity that you could not be here, above all that you could not be present for the explosion of Sacre.7
Thus, from Diaghilev's intentions to Stravinsky's conception, Nijinsky's aims and prediction, and Monteux's sense that Le Sacre would be an explosive experience, an air of anticipation, provocation, and tension surrounded the creation of the ballet. There can be no doubt that a scandale of some sort was both intended and expected. Toward the end of the year Stravinsky wrote to his mother before she went to hear her son's latest composition for the first time in St. Petersburg: "Do not be afraid if they whistle at Le Sacre. That is in the order of things." This was not a recognition that came to him after the fact but an intention built into the music.
Some have argued that Russian ballet and aestheticism as a whole were basically apolitical. To do so is to ignore the social origins of art and to misconstrue the social implications of the modern revolt. Aestheticism was anti-political in that it looked to art rather than parties and parliaments as a means of invigorating life. Yet in this very formulation of priorities it was behaving in an eminently political manner. Moreover, while it was often silent or ambiguous in its response to political movements and events, by definition it displayed a basic sympathy with progressive and even revolutionary tendencies, because aestheticism was founded squarely on the rejection of existing social codes and values. In an interview with the New York Times in 1916, Diaghilev proclaimed:
We were all revolutionists . . . when we were fighting for the cause of Russian art, and . . . it was only by a small chance that I escaped becoming a revolutionist with other things than color or music.
The 1905 disturbances in Russia had evoked many expressions of sympathy from the World of Art circle. In his early response to the events Diaghilev ranged from approval to trepidation, but in October he was delighted with the tsar's manifesto promising a constitution for Russia. "We are rejoicing," his aunt remarked at the time. "Yesterday we even had champagne. You could never guess who brought the manifesto . . . Seroja [little Serge; that is, Diaghilev], of all people. Wonderful." Diaghilev even wrote a letter to the secretary of state proposing a ministry of fine arts.'° Art and liberation, in other words, should proceed hand in hand.
But what were the social and moral implications of this quest for freedom? Despite a fascination among the avant-garde with the lower classes, with social outcasts, prostitutes, criminals, and the insane, the interest usually did not stem from a practical concern with social welfare or with a
restructuring of society, but from a desire simply to eliminate restrictions on the human personality. The interest in the lower orders was thus more symbolic than practical. The search was for a "morality without sanctions and obligations." The Nietzschean command "Du sollst werden, der du bist"' was the supreme moral law. ("You must become who you are.") "I am delighted at every new victory of the revolution . . ." wrote Konstantin Somov to Benois in 1905, "knowing that it will lead us not into an abyss but into life. I hate our past too much . . . I am an individualist; the whole world revolves around me, and essentially it is no concern of mine to go outside the confines of this 'I.' " As it was in Max Stirner's Das Einzige und sein Eigentumt (1845) (The Ego and His Own.), which achieved a new popularity at the end of the century, the world was telescoped here into the individualist moment: "For me nothing is higher than myself," said Stimer. The anarchistic and libertarian impulse, which is eminently political, is central to the modern revolt.
D. H. Lawrence was to write his openly political novel Kangaroo only after the war, but already his art had political connotations, if we see politics as more than the formal structures of social discourse and regard it as all mediation between individual and group interests. When Anna danced, pregnant and naked, in front of her husband in The Rainbow, which Lawrence wrote in the years before the war and published in 1915,
"she swayed backwards and forwards, like a full ear of corn, pale in the dusky afternoon, threading before the firelight, dancing his non-existence . . . He waited obliterated."
Despite the strange beauty of her movements, he could not understand why she was dancing, naked. "What are you doing?' he said gratingly. “You'll catch a cold.”
The dance was Anna's art. It was the art of an Isadora Duncan that clearly inspired this passage. It was Nijinsky's art. It belonged to them and not to any husband, any lover, or any audience. Art as act erased husbands, lovers, and audiences. Art was freedom.
But the freedom had meaning only in relation to the audience. Anna's dance could have no meaning without her husband. And so, paradoxically, the negated audience was central to the art. The acte gratuit became a will-o'-the-wisp, and the individualistic moment became also a supremely social and hence political moment.
A U D I E N C E
Beside Venice, the city most awash with metaphorical meaning forthe western world is Paris. It is a city of youth and romance, but also of experience and regret; of both exuberance and wistfulness; of bold ideas and faded dreams; of grand style and of frivolity. Many have found in the city a combination of disparities, an unrivaled complete ness, and have shared William Shirer's memory of it: "as near to paradise on this earth as any man could ever get."1
Who has not imagined or recalled "that summer in Paris" even if he or she neither has nor ever will set foot on a quai along the Seine? Harold Rosenberg, in 1940 after the fall of the city to the Germans, described Paris as "the Holy Place of our time. The only one."' He echoed the words and sentiments of Heinrich Heine, who a century earlier had called Paris "the new Jerusalem," and Thomas Appleton, whose idea it was that Paris is where good Americans go when they die. The suggestion in these encomia is that Paris has somehow managed to harness its discordant urban energies-- its crush of humanity, its conciliars of class, its concentrations of greed and despair-- and to deal with its physical problems in such a way as to produce a rich and exhilarating spiritual effect.
Starting in the middle of the last century, the city had indeed done much to encourage such an image: from the extensive improvements to the city under the guidance of Louis Napoleon's prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, to the repeated organization of lavish and expensive world expositions, to the architectural additions and improvements made by people like Viollet-le-Duc, to the building of the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur, to the relatively lax censorship laws, which permitted entertainment and publications that would have had little chance of survival elsewhere in Europe, and, finally, to the intentionally ambiguous morality, a morality, not found elsewhere in Europe, that tolerated a street life of absinthe, cafes, and girls.
There was, however, another side to the picture, one that became more noticeable as the century neared its end. This was the passive, lethargic, and doubtful side of Paris, Paris as object, as victim; Paris as the site of crisis, as the locus of a culture of crisis; Paris as the site of an overwhelming ennui, to which Barres referred in 1885: "A profound indifference engulfs us." Paris had become a cultural symbol, as Harold Rosenberg noted perceptively in his 940 article, "not because of its affirmative genius alone, but perhaps, on the contrary, through its passivity, which allowed it to be possessed by
the searchers of every nation." The older Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1886 found the city "dull and dreary . . . vacuous and torpid."' Three quarters of a century later a waiter told Jack Kerouac, "Paris est pourri.” (Paris is rotten.)
Politically, Paris, after the great Revolution of 1789, remained a center for messianic radicalism for more than a century, until the role was usurped by Moscow in 1917. The symbol, however, was more important than the reality. The periods of genuine political tolerance in which radical elements could proselytize freely were few in France in that century, and the fate of the Revolution's ideals, of liberty, equality, and fraternity, elicited much sarcasm and scorn. In the fortnight before the premiere of Le Sacre Georges Clemenceau twice referred, in speeches, to the mal in French life "that gnaws at us": the inability of the French to organize themselves in an acceptable political system.”
In the course of its development, Paris became not simply the ville des lumieres but also a symbol of urban blight. The population became more concentrated and dense in the core area. Although the central part of the city was the most beautiful in the world, the banlieux or suburbs could lay claim to being among the most ugly. Aubervilliers, Les Lilas, and Issy-les-Moulineaux, built in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to try to counter the congestion, are lyrical names for grim industrial suburbs. Slum quarters without adequate sanitation abounded-- in 1850 only one house in five had water. Paris was the undisputed western capital of tramps and beggars.
All major European cities confronted similar problems in the industrial expansion of the last century, but in Paris the example of radical political action had left its mark, and social tensions surfaced twice in particularly vicious form. In the June days of 1848 and during the Commune of 1871 class hatred exploded and destroyed vast sections of the city. More people were killed in one week of street fighting in May 1871 than in the whole of the Jacobin terror, and more of the city was damaged than in any war before or after. The grand boulevards that Baron Haussmann laid out through the
clogged center of the city in the 1850s and sixties to give Paris its distinctive urban elegance and cultivated airiness were said to have been designed, in part at least, to restrict the potential for barricades and to give troops both quick access from their barracks and uncluttered shooting galleries against the classes dangereuses in case of civil strife. Political tension was thus a constant in the life of Paris and reflected the general tug of war between past and future.
In the l880s the horse still ruled Paris. The Etoile and the Champs Elysees were surrounded by stables, riding schools, and the headquarters of horse vendors. The elegant gentleman, monocle attached to the rim of his top hat, carnation in his lapel, riding boots glistening, talked constantly of the Jockey Club and the horse show. Grooms relaxed in cafes in the rue de Pouthieu and the rue Marbeuf. The odor of horse manure pervaded the air, and pedestrians thought nothing of walking in the middle of the street. Yet within a few years the automobile had invaded Paris. In l 896, Hugues le Roux, a young journalist, warned the prefect of police that he would carry a pistol to deal with drivers of automobiles who threatened his and his family's safety on the street. The police, he charged, appeared totally unprepared to take any measures against the lunatic motorists who had made the streets of Paris mortally dangerous. Seventy years after he first arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1904 and sat with Gabriel Astruc at the Cafe de la Paix, Arthur Rubinstein remembered the odors of the occasion, perfume and .horse scent. He expressed himself with delicacy in his memoirs. Had he been frank, he might have said he recalled a melange of fine perfume, engine exhausts, and manure. That would have expressed a little more dearly the contraries that had become so striking in Paris as it grew in the last century, contraries that were never more obvious than in the brilliant though crepuscular atmosphere of the belle epoque.
Paris and the whole of France became increasingly absorbed in these contradictions as the century neared its end. After the stunning defeat of Louis Napoleon' s Second Empire in 1870-1871 at the hands of the Prussians and the disastrous civil war fought in Paris, the nation's traditional sense of grandeur and pre-eminence in Europe was countered by an immediate memory of debacle. A crippling sense of decline, together with a disputatious search for the roots of the malignancy, pervaded French life in the Third Republic. Enemies were sought within and without: war scares were frequent; public
scandals seemed to multiply and to be accompanied by a spate of anarchist bombings, the most publicized though least costly in human life being that in the Chamber of Deputies on December 9, 1893; and the Dreyfus affair, which rent the whole country in the last decade of the century, was simply the most sensational symbol of the debility and turmoil.
In an era of imperialism France lost ground in the quest for colonies. Her foreign trade declined. As parts of the world moved into a second stage of industrialization after 1890, France did not keep pace, and Frenchmen, exemplifying their self-doubt, showed a greater willingness to invest money abroad than at home. And while the birthrate of her neighbors, particularly Germany, grew significantly, that of France declined.
Even Paris seemed to stop developing after 1880. The population of the city grew only because peripheral areas were incorporated into the metropolitan boundaries. It took more than twenty years, until 1907, to finish Haussmann's plans for the boulevard Raspail, and the very avenue named to honor his achievement was left incomplete for fifty years, until the 1920s. Lethargy and a nagging awareness of degeneration thus confronted a legacy of grandeur and gloire. The German ambassador to Paris sensed this in 1886; in October Count Munster cabled Berlin: "The wish that there may be one day a holy war is common to every Frenchman; but the demand for its speedy fulfilment is met with a shake of the head."
Even as cultural arbiter to the world, a role that most Frenchmen regarded as a permanent international bequest and hence as their birthright, the country felt uncertain. By the second decade of this century Paris seemed to be far more entranced by foreign culture than by its own: in June 1911, for example, there was a saison beige at Les Bouffes, a saison italienne at the Chatelet, a saison russe across the square at the Sarah Bernhardt, and a saison viennoise at the Vaudeville. Although important compositions by Charpentier, Faure, Ravel, Schmitt, and Debussy were accorded their first performances in the spring and summer of 1913, all the recent stir and excitement seems to have been generated by foreign composers and artists: Strauss, Mussorgsky, Kuznetsova, Chaliapin, as well as the Ballets russes. Moreover, the foreigners, the Russians in particular, were often inclined to regard their contributions with an air of superiority and even with imperious pretensions to ultimate art. "We have shown the Parisians," Alexandre Benois claimed after the 1909 Russian season, "what theater should be . . . This trip was dearly a historic necessity. We are in contemporary civilization the ingredient without which it would corrode entirely."
If, however, the innovative art of foreigners elicited fascination, any native rebels, such as the Fauves, were likely to be denounced as agents of anarchy and decomposition. The widely read critic Samuel Rocheblave, for example, regretted at the time that painting in France since Courbet had lost self-control and had become polemical, political, and nothing more than spectacle. The fin de siecle, in his view, was a synonym for overt anarchy imported from abroad. Impressionism, which broke down color and light, and cubism, which broke down solid form, were not French styles but something approximating "barbarism." "Plus d'ecole," he said with a sigh, "mais une pous siere de talents; plus de corps, mais des individus." (No school any longer, only a smattering of talent; no group any longer, only individuals.)
If an important impulse behind experimentation in the arts at the turn of the century was a quest for liberation, a break, in aesthetic and moral terms, from central authority, from patriarchy, from bourgeois conformity, from, in short, a European tradition that had been elevated to a large extent from Paris, then it was no surprise that much of the psychological and spiritual momentum for this break came from the peripheries, geographical, social, generational, and sexual. The emphasis on youth, sensuality, homosexuality, the unconscious, the primitive, and the socially deprived originated in large part not in Paris but on the borders of traditional hegemony. The modern movement was full of exiles, and the condition of exile, or the "battle on the frontiers," as the Polish-Italian Frenchman Apollinaire described the endeavor of his cohort, became central themes of the modern mentality. The young Henry de Montherlant's first play, written in 1914 when the playwright was eighteen, was called L'Exil. That same year James Joyce put together the first draft of his play Exiles. Paris, because of its mythical associations with revolutionary ideals, became the refuge of many of these exiles, including Joyce, and thus the main setting of the modern revolt. Asked to name the great French artists of his time, Cocteau replied, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Modigliani." By 1913 Paris had become,
as Jacques-Emile Blanche wrote in November of that year, the gare centrale of Europe; a center for developments but not an innovator.
The general political and economic condition of France in the belle epoque of course provided the backdrop for the theatricality, and cultural preoccupations were related to political and strategic concerns. In both, vulnerability was the prevailing characteristic. When a Franco-Russian treaty materialized in 1893, ending a quarter century of diplomatic isolation that had been engineered largely by Otto von Bismarck, Paris erupted in jubilation verging on hysteria. Matchboxes with portraits of the tsar, Kronstadt pipes, and Neva billfolds became all the rage. Portraits of the tsar and tsarina were hung in children's rooms. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky became favorite reading.
To the interest in Russia must be added an obsession with Germany. After the defeat of 1870-1871, after the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the Germans, and after the added humiliation of having the German Reich proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, Prussia-Germany became not simply the despised enemy but the incarnation of evil and thus the antithesis of France. Bismarck's botte ferree, set on the nape of France, became the inescapable image of Hermann's relationship to Marianne. Yet in this sadistic Mephistophelian role Prussia-Germany also obviously be came the source of consuming interest, an interest expressed cautiously at first but later more openly. The treatment of Wagner is illustrative. Before the mid 1880s any regard for the German composer had to be almost surreptitious, and proposals to perform his works in Paris were met with outspoken opposition. By the 1890s, however, a Wagner wave was under way, and the pilgrimage to Bayreuth had become a fad. Wagner dearly influenced Mallarme, Proust, and Debussy. In 1913 Wagner's centenary was celebrated in Paris with productions of Tristan and the whole of the Ring cycle, an extravagance that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier.
Taine had suggested in 1867 that "the Germans are the initiators and perhaps the masters of the modern spirit." If that idea had few takers then among Frenchmen, by the end of the century Germany had imposed herself awesomely on French consciousness, in intellectual and political circles, in business and industry, and among the military. By 1913, France, as a secure arbiter of taste, was a thing of the past. In that year, while the Germans and Russians celebrated the centenary of the first Napoleon's defeat, the French were reminded of their decline. "In Paris, uncertainty rules," wrote Jacques-Emile Blanche." The memorable evening of May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was to provide a vivid expression of that uncertainty.
S C A N D A L A S S U C C E S S
What then was so scandalous, provocative, and surprising about Le Sacre?
The theme was devoid of readily identifiable moral purpose. Primitive, pre-ethical, pre-individual man was portrayed in nature. Re birth, life, and death were depicted without obvious ethical comment, without a moral "sauce," to borrow Jacques Riviere's typically Gallic analogy. In this portrayal of the continuity of life, fundamental, brutal, and tragic, beyond individual fate, there was no suggestion of sentiment. There was only energy, exultation, and necessity. The victim was not mourned but honored. The chosen maiden joined in the rite automatically, without sign of comprehension or interpretation. She submitted to a fate that transcended her. The theme was basic and at the same time brutal. If there was any hope, it was in the energy and fertility of life, not in morality. To an audience decked out in its civilized finery, the message was jarring.
The music was equally jarring. It lacked ornamentation, moral intimation, and even, for the most part, melody. A few brief melodic lines, inspired by Russian folk tunes, did surface, but otherwise the music bore no obvious relation to the nineteenth century tradition, even to impressionism. The laws of harmony and rhythm appeared to be violated. Instruments that have no vibrato were intentionally chosen in order to eliminate any trace of sentimentality. New sounds were created by the use of extreme registers for woodwinds and strings. The orchestra called for was immense, 120 instruments, with a high percentage of percussion, which could produce a formidable eruption of sound. With its violence, dissonance, and apparent cacophony, the music was as energetic and primitive as the theme. Debussy said of Le Sacre that it was "an extraordinary, ferocious thing. You might say it's primitive music with every modern convenience."
One critic called it "refined Hottentot music"; another claimed that it was "the most discordant composition ever written.
Never has the cult of the wrong note been applied with such industry, zeal, and ferocity.
If the theme brought the very notion of civilization into question, and if the music underlined this challenge, then Nijinsky's choreography compounded the provocation. Every virtuosity was eliminated. There was not a single jette, pirouette, or arabesque. Ironically, the man whose breathtaking grace and agility had been frenetically acclaimed in previous years seemed to have expunged all traces of his own achievement from his composition. Movement was reduced to heavy jumping, with both feet, and walking, in either a smooth or stomping fashion. As in all of Nijinsky's compositions, there was a basic position; this time it consisted of the feet turned inward with great exaggeration, knees bent, arms tucked in, head turned in profile as the body faced forward. In other words, the classical pose was contradicted entirely by what appeared to many as knock-kneed contortion. Nijinsky called his movements "stylized gestures" to emphasize his departure from the flow and rhythm of classical dance, to stress the disconnections, the jaggedness, of existence. The dancers were no longer individuals but parts of the composition. Most of the movements were in groups. Since there was no melody to follow, the dancers had to follow the rhythm, but even that was extraordinarily difficult, since bar after bar had a different time signature. To compound the complexity, different groups of dancers onstage often were required to follow separate rhythms. When Diaghilev and Nijinsky visited Dalcroze at his school of eurhythmics in r9 r l., they had persuaded Marie Rambert to leave Hellerau and join the Ballets russes in order to assist Nijinsky in teaching rhythm to the corps de ballet. The first-night audience was not alone in finding Nijinsky's work difficult to comprehend. Many of his own dancers had left no doubt that they considered the work ugly and loath some.
The critics were on the whole savage toward Nijinsky. Henri Quittard continued his crusade against Nijinsky's choreography, calling him a "frustrated schoolboy" verging on lunacy. Louis Laloy accused him of being "totally devoid of ideas and even common sense." Roerich's sets were the only element of the ballet that did not flaunt novelty and as a result they were virtually ignored. In their use of red,
green, and white in combinations suggestive of icon painting, however, they quietly complemented the sense of exoticism and Russian folk influence.
As Jacques Riviere, the most astute of contemporary commentators, pointed out, asymmetry is the essence of Le Sacre. The theme, the music, and the choreography were all angular and jolting. And yet, paradoxically, as we can see, the asymmetry is stylized and highly controlled. There is a powerful unity to the ballet. Implicit in the work is an ecstatic turbulence, a thick melange of instinct, sensuality, and fate. In the words of Riviere, this is "spring seen from the inside, with its violence, its spasms, and its fissions. We seem to be watching a drama through a microscope."
The ballet contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the rebellion against social convention.
If these features of the ballet elicited enthusiastic appreciation from a segment of the audience, a vociferous opposition was also aroused. It demanded that art be a vision of grace, harmony, and beauty rather than an expression of idiosyncracy or neurosis; that art be morally uplifting rather than contemptuous or indifferent to prevailing mores; that the patrons of art be respected and not intentionally insulted. Stravinsky's effort they regarded as noise, Nijinsky's as ugly parody. The opposition responded, as a result, in what it perceived as like manner. Insult would be met with insult, noise with noise, sarcasm with sarcasm.
In the next few days the response in the press was, with few exceptions, overwhelmingly negative, not only in the daily papers but in the musical journals as well. Everyone joked about Le Massacre du
printemps. Stravinsky's talents were acknowledged, bur this time, it was said, he had gone too far with his ingenuity. "The composer has written a score that we shall not be ready for until 1940," noted one commentator with prescience. Nijinsky's talents too were universally recognized, but as a dancer not as a choreographer. With almost o.ne voice he was urged to restrict himself to dancing. Marie Rambert noted that he too was "fifty years ahead of his time."
On June 2, Le Figaro felt the need to editorialize on its front page about the Russian ballet company. Although a peace agreement in the Balkans was signed on May 30, to conclude the latest round of war there, wrote Alfred Capus,
there remain nevertheless a number of international issues that still have to be settled. Among these I have no hesitation in placing in the front rank the question of the relationship of Paris with the Russian dancers, which has reached a point of tension where anything can happen. Already the other night there was a border incident whose gravity the government should not underestimate.
This time the Russian barbarians, led by Nijinsky, "a sort of Attila of the dance," really went too far. They were booed and they reacted with surprise. It seems that they are not at all aware of the customs and practices of the country they are imposing on, and they seem ignorant of the fact that we often take energetic measures against absurd behavior.
An accord could, however, perhaps be negotiated with the Russians.
Nijinsky would have to agree not to stage any more ballets that aspire to a level of beauty inaccessible to our feeble minds, and not to produce any more three-hundred-year-old "modern" women, or little boys feeding at breasts, or for that matter even breasts. In return for these concessions we would continue to assure him that he is the greatest dancer in the world, the most handsome of men, and we would prove this to him. We should then be at peace.
And the article concluded by pointing out that a group of Polish actors was about to arrive in Paris. They had better restrain themselves and not tell Frenchmen that the only true art is Polish art.
In front of the bust of Moliere, they had better not cry: Vive la Pologne, monsieur!
Needless to say, Alfred Capus must have been pleased with himself when he savored his cabaret wit in print that Monday in early June.
A year later, in the midst of the "July crisis" provoked by the assassination of the Austrian archduke, one Maurice Dupont, in an article in La Revue Bleue, decried the curiosity of his age, which he saw not as a sign of superior intellectual activity but as a disquieting symptom of illness: "A healthy human being is not curious." He saw particularly in the enthusiasm that the Russian company had generated a sign of regrettable spiritual disequilibrium. The essential character of a work like Le Sacre was nihilism, he charged. The work had intensity but lacked amplitude. It deadened the senses instead of elevating the soul. It was a "Dionysian orgy dreamed of by Nietzsche and called forth by his prophetic wish to be the beacon of a world hurtling toward death." Dupont thought, however, that there was some cause for hope, the most spectacular evidence of French sanity having been the raucous demonstration that greeted Le Sacre.
By the time his article appeared, Dupont probably noted with relief that Gabriel Astruc had gone bankrupt. Nijinsky had married Romola de Pulszky and had been dropped as a result from Diaghilev's troupe. In short, the "modern wave" had encountered setbacks. He might also have noted, however, that scientists were occupied with the possibility that the world might end. In the Revue des deux mondes Charles Nordmann wrote:
There exist in the life of societies as well as individuals hours of moral discomfort when despair and fatigue spread their leaden wings over human beings. Men then begin to dream of nothingness. The end of everything ceases to be "undesirable" and its contemplation is in fact soothing. The recent debates among scientists on the death of the universe are perhaps the reflection of these gloomy days.