Sex and Scandal in Ballet

by Emma WhipdayPicture the scene. Paris, 1912. Hundreds of spectators are seated in the Théâtre du Châtelet to watch a new Russian ballet scored by Debussy. Onstage, a beautiful Russian boy of twenty-two, dressed as a faun, masturbates through his golden tights. He presses up against a silken scarf, stolen from a ballerina dressed as a nymph. Applause is intermingled with boos, hisses and gasps, as the management hurriedly drop the curtain. Vaslav Nijinsky’s unforgettable performance changed the face of ballet forever. He was publicly denounced for obscenity, but defended by foremost artists of the day, from Rodin to Proust, in a scandal that shook Paris.Sadly, this occurrence has been largely forgotten. The image of ballet in the popular press is epitomised by Darcy Bussel; that of pretty girls prancing about in tutus. Billy Elliot is another name that springs to mind, but the portrait of northern-boy-made-good fails to challenge the stereotypes that the word ‘ballet’ evokes. The most radical element of ballet portrayed in the film is (gasp) the all-male cast of Swan Lake.Which is not to say that Billy Elliot got it wrong. It’s simply that the film showed so small a part of the picture. Every art has its mould-breakers, from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, to Picasso, Dali and, more recently, Tracey Emin. The scandal surrounding Emin’s condom-strewn installation My Bed was nothing compared to that prompted by Nijinsky’s on-stage masturbation in L’après-Midi d’un Faune: why then do innovations in all other arts remain prominent in the public consciousness, whilst those in the ballet world are largely forgotten? The above example might suggest that this scandal in the ballet world was due to its gratuitous sexual element; many would say the same of Emin’s My Bed. Yet the incident was in fact just one small part in a movement which was revolutionary in its effect on the way ballet was perceived. It involved not just ballet itself but music, art and costume design; it was to influence areas as diverse as film, fashion and the culture of celebrity. Any account of those involved reads like a Who’s Who of the foremost artists, composers and dancers of the period, including Picasso, Bakst, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Pavlova. The movement itself was entirely orchestrated by one man: a Russian exile called Diaghilev.When Serge Diaghilev arrived at the University of St. Petersburg, his fellow students found him ‘provincial’. Not for long, however; the eighteen-year-old soon found himself at the centre of a group of artists and composers, all striving to establish themselves in the arts world, and all dreaming of greatness. Perhaps surprisingly, ballet was not Diaghilev’s principal interest. His first ambition was to be a composer, but he lacked the talent. Instead, he turned to art, editing the magazine Mir Iskusstva from 1889 until 1904. It was during these years that he developed the traits which were to bring him such cataclysmic success: a flair for public relations, the ability to surround himself with an entourage of like-minded individuals, a perfectionist eye for detail and a talent for discovering unknowns. His next project involved exhibiting a collection of Russian art, firstly in St. Petersburg, then later in Paris. This prompted something of a Russian revival; Russia had largely gone out of fashion. Diaghilev’s next step was to organize a season of Russian opera and ballet, to keep the public interested. The Ballet Russes was born, and proved so popular that the opera was soon dropped from the repertoire.For the next few years, the Ballet Russes was the height of fashion, and Diaghilev discovered such huge talents as composer Stravinsky and dancer/choreographer Nijinsky. He also pioneered huge advances in set and costume design. Bakst, who collaborated with Diaghilev on Mir Iskusstva, designed costumes for Cléopâtre, Scheherazade and Le Spectre de la Rose which influenced the fashions that appeared in the windows of Harvey Nichols; after a tendency towards monochrome, clashing, jewel-like colours suddenly became the vogue. Meanwhile, Picasso was introduced to Diaghilev by his friend Jean Cocteau, who wanted Diaghilev to stage a ballet representing ‘the best in Parisian modernism’. Any of the ballets which Picasso designed the sets for, from Parade to Le Train Bleu, could hold claim to that title. Each part of the meticulously planned performances was ‘modern’ to the extreme.It wouldn’t be an over-exaggeration to say that, to all intents and purposes, Diaghilev was the Ballet Russes. So much so, that when Diaghilev died, the company immediately fell apart, consumed by its creditors. This was in part due to Diaghilev’s close relationships with the stars. He not only mentored Nijinsky, persuading him to choreograph; he was also his lover, from their first meeting until Nijinsky’s secret marriage to one of the touring dancers. When Diaghilev learned of the marriage, he fired him from the company, and Nijinsky gradually disintegrated into mental illness. Some blame Diaghilev, believing it was his jealousy and possessiveness that drove his lover away. Others blame Nijinsky’s wife for seducing him in the first place. Whatever the truth of it, Nijinsky spent the remainder of his life in mental hospitals, and never danced again.Diaghilev also adored the dancer Massine, who became the principal, and replaced Nijinsky as choreographer. When Diaghilev suspected Massine of loving a woman, he had the woman followed, and even briefly kidnapped her. Yet despite his jealousy and possessiveness, Diaghilev had a charisma that inspired huge loyalty in those around him. His vision was so powerful that, even after his death and the dispersion of his company, the Ballet Russes was reformed in Monte Carlo, with the help of Massine. The company employed a new generation of dancers, many of them the daughters of Russian immigrants, whilst resurrecting the set and costume designs used by the original Ballet Russes, and performing many of the ballets from their repertoire. Strangely enough, the aspects of the movement most widely remembered are those that would make the tabloids today. On YouTube, you can find a clip from the 1980 Hebert Ross film Nijinsky, depicting a reconstruction of the dance which ends in Nijinsky’s onstage masturbation. The clip ends with a sentence worthy of any headline: ‘You’ve just masturbated in front of all Paris!’ Another scandal which revolved around Nijinsky was his early refusal to wear the ‘modesty skirt’ then mandatory for male dancers. Instead he wore only the rather revealing tights. This was 1911, and the audience included such eminent figures as the Tsar’s mother. Nijinsky was immediately fired from the company. The company was the Imperial Russian Ballet, one of the most illustrious in the world; and the role which Nijinsky forsook for the sake of his costume was that of ‘Albrecht’ in Giselle, his first principal role. He later complained, ‘I was made to suffer for my modernity’. The scandal set a precedent; forty-nine years later, Rudolph Nureyev, a ‘ballet celebrity’ to rival Nijinsky, wore a short jacket with sheer tights in order that the audience might better see the ‘line’ of his body. However, the single most talked-about event in the world of ballet had little to do with revealing costumes. Two of Diaghilev’s most talented protégées were Nijinsky and Stravinsky, and in 1913, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées witnessed the performance of The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Nijinsky, scored by Stravinsky. It was the most controversial ballet of all time.Many of the movements were the antithesis of classical ballet. Ballet dancers are trained to be ‘turned out’; that is, when they stand with their feet together, their heels must be touching, and their toes must be facing in almost opposite directions. In The Rite of Spring, however, Nijinsky decided that, to produce the right effect, the dancers had to be ‘turned in’. Indeed, the dancers had to un-learn almost every technique that had formed the basis of their balletic educations. Feet weren’t pointed, arms were stiff rather than relaxed, and many of the movements were clumsy rather than delicate. This new style took the dancers 120 rehearsals to perfect, and resulted in many injuries.Of course, even classical ballet is a dangerous art. The majority of dancers have to stop dancing as they hit their thirties, and many have foot and ankle trouble, and even hip replacements, in later life. Ballet, despite its beauty, puts the body under a strain that it wasn’t designed for. What’s more, it requires a level of fitness that would rival that of most professional athletes. Perhaps this explains the fascination with the idea of dancing to death. This motif appears in many ballets, perhaps most famously in Giselle, where the spirits of women betrayed in love dance their errant lovers to their graves. These death-dances are no doubt arduous, but they appear effortless, and the audience does not fear for the safety of those attempting them. Nijinsky, however, plays with that convention, in creating a ballet that shows a manic and frenzied dance to the death, with the dancer attempting it looking both pained and exhausted. The premise is that the dancer is chosen as a sacrifice to the god of spring, and Nijinsky’s choreography exploits this idea to its full and gruesome effect.The strange contortions into which Nijinsky forced the human body were as shocking – and influential – as the innovations in set and costume. Yet it was not these elements alone that caused the controversy, but rather the combination of the almost bestial nature of the dance with Stravinsky’s unearthly score, the likes of which had never before been experienced. Stravinsky’s rhythms were irregular and his chords discordant. What’s more, this was the first score ever to utilize percussion as a section of the orchestra in its own right. The result was the most ground-breaking ballet ever created.To call the reaction of the audience a riot is not an exaggeration. The strife between those who supported the ballet and those who deplored it was so strong that fist-fights were started in the aisles. The resulting pandemonium was so loud that the dancers could not hear the orchestra, and Nijinsky was forced to stand in the wings, counting loudly to ensure the dancers kept in time. Many people left, but the chaos continued; eventually the police got involved, but even they were unable to restore order. Nijinsky and Stravinsky were distraught, but Diaghilev was reportedly delighted: he could not have hoped for better publicity. There has never been a scandal to rival this in the ballet world; even the arts world in general, never short of scandals, would find it hard to compete.Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes became a catalyst for change in almost every form of art. It spawned countless copies, and was the inspiration for numerous films, television dramas, books, memoirs, documentaries, and even songs, making an indelible mark on modern culture. It became the hallmark for rebellion against convention and tradition, though those who later broke boundaries in mediums like sculpture, popular music and film may not remember or credit it. So when you think of ballet, by all means think of tutus, pointe shoes, and Darcey Bussel. Classical ballet has its merits, and I for one would not disparage it. Just don’t forget that there was once a time when ballet changed the world.