In 1912, Serge Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes unveiled a ballet by a twenty-three-year-old that shocked Paris. Those who saw L'Aprs-midi d'un Faune, the first piece of choreography by the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, were undoubtedly familiar with the music; Claude Debussy's Pr_lude _ l'aprs midi d'un faune had received its first performance 18 years earlier. Some ballet fans may also have read the mysterious and evocative Symbolist poem by Stephane Mallarme to which the music paid homage. Poem and music conjured up a summer afternoon in which a faun, lazing amid the reeds, dreams of nymphs he once seduced.
But the ballet? Mon dieu! Leon Bakst's blue, green, gold, and russet backdrop was hung in the second wing, leaving only a narrow corridor for the faun on his rock and the nymphs come to bathe. Nijinsky, wishing to offer a new vision of dance, had been looking at Greek vases and bas reliefs. His nymphs and the pursuing goat-man wound their way across the stage in two-dimensional designs, their feet and heads in profile, their bodies twisted to face front. There were no ballet steps.
Nijinsky, known for his elevation, performed only a single squared-off jump. And then there was the ending, when the faun gathered up the scarf the chief nymph had dropped in her stylized flight, took it to his rock, laid it gently out, pressed himself down on top of it, and arched up in orgasmic release. Imagine the furor!
In 1953, Jerome Robbins created his very different Afternoon of a Faun to the same Debussy music. At thirty-four, this extremely successful choreographer was bouncing between the New York City Ballet (with which he also performed) and Broadway. His last project had been choreographing the revue Two's Company, starring Bette Davis. It's a testament to his versatility that his next project was this small gem of a work that, unlike Nijinsky's ballet, was shocking only in its simplicity and the subtle complexities that lurked beneath its surface.
Robbins was familiar with the earlier version as it had been handed down in somewhat debased form; he had also probably read about Mikhail Fokine's 1911 ballet Narcisse,which presented Nijinsky as the youth besotted by his own reflection in a pool. And there's evidence that he knew Mallarme's poem as well. But Robbins chose a more contemporary vision of the scene. His hero is a young ballet dancer, napping in a white, light-filled studio whose walls are so unsubstantial that we can see through them to where the sole "nymph" picks her way along on pointe, thinking perhaps to find an empty studio to practice in. The boy is slightly awkward at first; you sense a creaturely affinity with Nijinsky's faun (Robbins said he'd been inspired by once seeing the very young Edward Villella stretch in some unusual way during a class). The choreographer also, of course, understood the role of mirrors in ballet studios: not to abet narcissistic gazing like that of the mythic Greek with his pool, but to allow dancers to check their progress against the ideals they have set for themselves. In addition, Robbins had walked into a studio one day and seen Louis Johnson (the African American dancer who had appeared as a guest artist in Robbins's 1952 Ballade) practicing a Swan Lake adagio with a female student. He'd been struck by the contrast between the ardor of the choreography and their matter-of-fact rehearsal behavior.
In Afternoon of a Faun, the invisible "fourth wall" between audience and performers becomes the studio mirror. When the two young dancers gradually drift into moving together, they rarely confront each other face to face; they gaze at reflections of themselves and their partnership. Neither do they "perform" for the audience; they execute every movement as if discovering it for the first time, experimenting with how it feels. When the woman is doing her pli_s at the barre and the man walks behind her and gently places his hands on her waist, you can guess that he's going to lift her, but for him what happens seems surprising as well as familiar.
Lust plays no part in this Afternoon of a Faun, only an innocent curiosity and a single experimental kiss. Yet although the eroticism is muted (dancers are used to having others' hands on their bodies), it drifts in anyway. The aura of delicate sensuality that clings to the ballet may be in part the legacy of Robbins's original performers, the dark, subtly exotic Francisco Moncion and lovely, leggy Tanaquil Le Clercq, whom Robbins adored (and who had recently married the company's founder-director George Balanchine). As in Mallarme's poem, the encounter could have been a dream. At the end, the man is again sleeping on the floor. Alone in the wind-stirred room.
Deborah Jowitt has written for the Village Voice since 1967 and is the author of Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance.
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