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Flash Review 1, 10-25: Where's Ida Rubinstein?
Nijinsky: Mis-steps at an Exhibition
(But Still Reasons to Celebrate)

"Je suis une homme
Je suis une homme
Vous ette une homme
Vous ette une homme
Votre homme est une homme
Votre homme est une homme
Je suis une homme
Je suis une homme."

-- Vaslav Nijinsky, Journal, 1919

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Millions more people go to museums than to dance performances. As well, dance, unlike the visual arts, is ephemeral. So whenever there is an exhibit of dance-related visual art in a museum, it is reason to celebrate. More people are being exposed to our art, including many who have never been to an actual dance performance. ("I'm going to get myself to a proper ballet performance one of these days," a visitor to Musee d'Orsay, where a new exhibit on Vaslav Nijinky opened yesterday, resolved to his companion in a Cockney accent.) However, precisely because this is in many cases the only exposure a wide public will get to dance, a curator's responsibility to be scrupulous in representing our history is acute. While the new multi-gallery exhibit at d'Orsay, running through February 18, is thus reason to celebrate, the curating by Martine Kahane and Erik Nasland commits at least one error, misidentifying a crucial dancer, so that her name is left entirely out of the exhibit. This, at least one other sin of omission, some questionable choices for inclusion, and one noticeably puzzling display order mar an exhibit that otherwise provides several high-points to leave one breathless, so vivid is the portrait that emerges of the man regarded as the greatest male dancer ever.

Before I proceed further, a credit note: In considering the exhibit yesterday, I was fortunate to have as a guide an authority in the Ballets Russes period. We're not identifying this expert here because our conversations were informal; it's my hope that he/she will eventually write his/her own much more authoritative critque. I'm indebted to him/her for pointing out some of the errors, as well as some of the high-points.

We have to start, I think, by questioning how a dancer so very obviously Ida Rubinstein became misidentified as Tamara Karsavina.

The item in question (no. 56 in the exhibit) is a sensuously breathtaking George Barbier (alias Edward William Larry) piece, now in the collection of the Dansmuseet in Stockholm (where Naslund is in charge), from Fokine's 1910 "Scheherazade." In the exhibit as well as in the exhibition catalogue, the image is identified as "Tamara Karsavina et Vaslav Nijinsky dans Scheherazade, 1913." Well, the woman is not Karsavina; it's Rubinstein. And if you don't believe me (or our expert), all you have to do is look in the exhibition catalogue (by Kahane), which contains a second image, of the same two dancers, by the same artist -- this time, with Rubinstein identified as the female. This second image is not in the actual exhibit, however, and thus Rubinstein is left out of it entirely. This is an important omission. While no Pavlova, certainly, Rubinstein's role in proselytizing for ballet in the first half of the twentieth century was also important. Capitalizing on her glamorous beauty -- Rubinstein was more of an actress than a dancer -- she too formed her own touring troupe.

It's a pity, really, that most of the visitors to this exhibit won't know the true identify of this dancer, for her depiction by Barbier is downright sensual.

In the image on display, an obsidian-skinned Nijinsky, as the favored slave, his chest bare, is keeling, in agony and ecstasy, clutching Rubinstein's Sultana where her sex lives. She is standing, on pointe, arms raised, arched so that her pelvis is thrust at him. Her very Rubinstein hair flows in dark ringlets behind her, a thin feather curving over it; large, ornate bracelets cover her forearms; a cape with tassels flows behind her; her midriff is revealed, as are her nipples. Her skin is ivory.

The other main sin of omission is perhaps less glaring because the name omitted is not that of a dancer; however, as curating, it is no less disturbing. The photo is identified as the last known of Nijinsky before he died. It is April 5, 1950 -- Nijinsky died April 8 -- and he is watching a BBC Television taping of the Paris Opera. We know this from a note to Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier -- from whose collection, like many other items in the exhibit, this photo is taken -- from the photographer himself. The note, one page of which is included in the frame with the photo, ends with this request of Neumeier: "If you mount or frame it, I should be very grateful if you would write in tiny...." The correspondent seems to be asking to be identified as the photographer; he is not.

And speaking of identification, a Jean Cocteau drawing of Nijinsky, identified in the wall text as being from 1913, may not be. True, Cocteau has written on the drawing that it is Nijinsky in 1913. However, he has also inscribed it to a friend, dating it "3 May 1956...Jean." Cocteau was famous for, in later years, making his own copies of previous drawings. So the question is: Was this a drawing actually made in 1913, and inscribed later; or, did Cocteau reproduce it in 1956, and simply write Nijinsky in 1913 on it?

More puzzling than these one, possibly two errors, in a way -- because they were cognizant choices -- is some of the items chosen to exhibit. To wit:

-- A mess o' drawings by one "Tigre," a 15-year-old who happened to be present at Nijinsky/Karsavina performances in 1913. In other words, a kid in the audience. One sample might have been cute, to give an idea of how a young audient took in Nijinsky at the time; but this exhibition has about a dozen.

-- As well, we all know the ornate and lovely Leon Bakst stage and costume designs for the Ballets Russes. And some of those are included in this exhibition. But in addition to this, inexplicably, we also get what has to be both the most garish Bakst and the most tasteless and horrid depiction of Nijinsky ever exposed to the public. The large and prominently displayed painting from 1909, "Nijinsky au Lido," could as well be depicting a run-of-the-mill hunk at Venice Beach. A very green and orange skinned Nijinsky, dressed in white turban and very red bathing trunks, stands on the sand, a ala Hercules, one arm at his side, one extended. This painting, from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art ("No wonder they've never displayed it," mused my guide) reveals, unfortunately, an amateurish avenue for Bakst's artistic endeavors, and reduces Nijinsky to a beefcake model.

Not that Nijinsky as model for beefcake could not be done to great effect! Among the most revealing images in this exhibition -- both literally and in terms of how they reveal the perception of Nijinsky in the wider artistic culture at the time -- are a series of art nouveauish studies by Roberto Montenegro that might be characterized as homo-erotic before there was homo-erotic. Er, not just because they're of Nijinksy, but because of the details Montenegro chooses to focus on and enhance in this series of studies from several Ballets Russes dances.

"Vaslav Nijinsky, an Artistic Interpretation of his Work in Black, White, and Gold" was originally published in London by Cyril Beaumont in very limited, expensive editions in 1911, 12, and 13.

In one image, from "Le Festin," Nijinsky's seductive, slanted eyes -- definitely a provocative motif in the drawings throughout the exhibit -- look out from under a turban. He is heavily made up, in a gown, and holding a bowl. His nipples are revealed. In another, as "Narcisse," he's in a skirt, his head tilted bitchily, his feet bound, the nipple, again, showing: Your basic drag queen. In an image from "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune," the famous costume reveals his nipples and navel. We know this is Montenegro's focus here, because the actual thick leotard of the time would not have so minutely revealed his body.

Speaking of "Faune" -- and don't worry, we'll get to "Rite of Spring" in a bit! -- this would be a good time to turn to Herve Nisic's 26-minute film, "Revoir Nijinsky," featured in this exhibit. Here we get some material that's a rave for fans and scholars alike: First, there's tape of Paris Opera Ballet star Charles Jude -- Nureyev's longtime friend and protege -- being taught the Faune in 1976 by Massine, who was to succeed Nijinsky at the Ballets Russes. Then, we are in the year 2000 -- and Jude is teaching the movement, particularly the hunching of the back, the angling of the elbows, and the positioning of the Faune's fingers -- to his own dancers at the company of the Opera of Bordeaux.

Following this, we get into the real nitty-gritty regarding those specifically placed fingers, with an interview with Ann Hutchinson Guest, a co-founder of the Dance Notation Bureau and doyen of Labanotation, who recalls, demonstrating on her own hands, how Nijinsky's wife, Romola, asked her to decipher Nijinsky's own notation for "Faune."

First, there was, surprisingly, little that had to be decoded in Nijinsky's homemade version of notation. "For the Nymph," Guest explains,"the hands were: finger, slightly bent; other times quite angular; the range of difference in the hands and feet -- all these were in the notation."

And, er, speaking of visual notes, let's turn now to the real meat of this exhibition -- itself worth the price of admission.

On May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Nijinsky premiered what was then the most scandalous ballet of its time: "Le Sacre du Printemps," or "Rite of Spring." Many years later, that ballet was arduously reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, who staged it on the Joffrey Ballet. One of the primary sources for this reconstruction was the drawings of Valentine Gross.

Executed during the ballet's creation, in the dark, these simple sketches -- these 13 drawings quite simply conjure the ballet. You'll think you can hear the thunderous Stravinsky score, and Nijinsky's thunderous choreography for it.

The other series which almost -- almost! -- makes you feel as if witnessing Nijinsky in the dance live is of 28 documentary photos of the time, by Baron Adolph De Meyer, that capture various moments from "Faune." Three of these are in sequence, from the 1912 ballet's finale: First, Nijinsky, scarf in hand, dipped torso with hands down; then he is on the ground, head arching up; then he is simply lying on the ground, face to the ground. Blinking my eyes rapidly, I could almost imagine I was watching a movie. The pity here -- and once again, we have the sloppy curating, or at least mounting, to blame -- is that most of the other plates in this series are not in sequential order. Here, as elsewhere in the exhibit, the curators have gold, which is good, but then squander an opportunity to let it really shine. A series -- and I'm told there are only seven full copies extant, one of which is in the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library -- that could have come close to recreating the actual dance for the viewers is instead just a series of remarkable, but randomly organized, vintage photos. A potential window for the past is still there...but clouded.

And, speaking of clouded, Nijinsky's mind in his final years is often thought to have been so, one manifestation being his spherical, geometrical drawings. But here a generous selection makes clear that Nijinsky was painting with a purpose.

A series of pastels, "Six portraits de Femmes," is lushly rendered. All the women seem to have red blush circles in their cheeks. A nude, reclining, is accurately if artistically depicted, with voluptuous breasts, stomach, and sex. Several drawings combine the geometry with the human, containing these rotund babushka-esque faces.

You'd think these drawings, the only art straight from the source, would affect one as the most haunting images of the exhibit. But no, I'd have to give that designation to a photo spread from "Match," published June 15, 1939. A 51-year-old Nijinsky, balding but vigorous, is seen coaching a very young Serge Lifar. He demonstrates the arms; touches the younger man's leg to guide it; and then...and then, in one full-page photo, Nijinsky, all 51 years of him, arms out, head looking down -- leaps! Behind him is the barre and the shadow of the 51-year-old Nijinsky, but between this shadow and himself is a third shadow, that seems of a Nijinsky in his prime; the feet pointed, the head tilting back and looking skywards. Or, as the photo caption underneath puts it: "Pour la premiere fais depuis vingt ans, la danse reprend possession de Nijinksy. Le miracle s'accomplit, Nijinsky s'eleve dans l'espace."

The photo is at the same time haunting...and yet, utterly exploitative. And there's the rub, folks. As seriously as we all take dance, most out there in the general public are not so intimate with it. Some are just afraid of it but others are not afraid to stereotype it and make fun of it. Outside the galleries of the Orsay exhibit, and reproduced in full in the catalogue, is an atrocious, tasteless, not even funny bronze by Berry Flanagan, from 1985: Nijinsky Hare.

To many, Nijinsky, like "The Dance," is fodder for mockery...for jokes. Don't get me wrong: there is much to appreciate in this exhibit. Among those items I haven't yet mentioned: a stunning, natural, sweet nude by Aristide Maillol; a study by Antoine Oudelle of his bas relief for the Theatre des Champs Elysees of Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan, in which they seem, like magnets, to be dancing in opposition and yet drawing inexorably towards each other, in motion; and some incredibly close-up photos, by Eugene Druet, that give us the most crystal-clear picture of Nijinsky's hypnotizing face and eyes I've ever seen (including one in which on his side, one leg flat and one bent at the knee, forearms on the ground, head up, looking straight out at us, he looks ready to pounce). There are also some unforgettable Cocteaus, including one where a barrel-chested Nijinsky, in mask for "Carnaval," one hand to his chin, the other holding a pancake make-up sponge, regards himself skeptically in the mirror, as, behind him, legs spread, sits a dour-looking Stravinsky, leaning on his cane, and another in which Nijinsky, backstage, having just finished a performance of "Spectre de la Rose," has collapsed on a chair, a glass of something in one hand, his lips seeming to be saying "Whew," as one attendant fans him with a cloth, and the other rubs his shoulders.

Much to be thankful for, certainly; and if you're in the neighborhood, I'd still recommend a visit, as I would purchasing the reasonably priced and generously illustrated $35 exhibition catalogue. But I don't think we can ignore the errors of commission or omission. Dance doesn't get many opportunities for such mass exposure. And when it does, those presenting it -- in this case, the curators -- have as much responsibility for perfect and scrupulous presentation as any dancer has (and most assume) when they step out on the stage.

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