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Joffrey Ballet to Perform Daring Diaghilev Works

By Lewis, Jean Battey | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

Joffrey Ballet to Perform Daring Diaghilev Works


Lewis, Jean Battey, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The Diaghilev Ballets Russes, in the 20 years that it delighted, astonished and shocked the capitals of Europe, was one of the most colorful and influential art movements of the century.

The Diaghilev company, which lasted from 1909 to 1929, merits that claim by the brilliant collaborations it fostered among choreographers, composers and artists. The works they produced became the very definition of modernism.

Two of those ballets will be here this week, performed by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It is a rare chance to see a live incarnation of the extraordinary atmosphere and achievements of that period.

The Joffrey has a treasure trove of masterpieces, in particular ballets created in the Diaghilev years. The company is bringing two of them - "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" and "Parade."

Another unique side of the Joffrey repertoire is its body of works by the company's director-choreographer, Gerald Arpino, who has two works on the program.

"L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" boasts a host of contributors. It has for its score Claude Debussy's dreamily atmospheric music, which in turn was inspired by Stephane Mallarme's poem about a faun's visions on a lazy summer afternoon.

The music, we can and do hear frequently. But the chance to see the dance is rare - and the dance is noteworthy. It was the first ballet choreographed by legendary performer Vaslav Nijinsky. And seeing it with its striking costumes and strong, almost overpowering scenery by Leon Bakst makes for an unforgettable experience.

The choreography that Nijinsky created for "Faune" startled and baffled its first audiences. Nijinsky was known for the wonder of his leaps - "he would," critics marveled, "hang in the air." Audiences came expecting balletic fireworks. But in "Faune" almost all the movement was earthbound, not airborne.

Nijinsky took his inspiration from figures on ancient urns and had his nymphs move with flat feet and in two dimensions - their bodies faced the audience but their heads were turned sharply in profile.

Nothing was so startling to those early audiences, though, as the end of the ballet with its sexually suggestive climax. Diaghilev was ever the showman, and the scandal with which "Faune" was received by the Parisian audience in 1912 only served to enhance his reputation.

"Parade," created seven years later - during WW II - was also daring but in quite a different way. It produced artistic collaboration at a high level and introduced cubism into the theater. The idea for the ballet came from Jean Cocteau, who wrote the libretto and persuaded the composer, Erik Satie, and Pablo Picasso, to join in the project. The word "surrealism" came into being for the first time to describe their efforts.

Satie's jazz-based score, which incorporated everyday noises such as typewriter strokes, and Picasso's elaborate cubist costumes, some of them 11 feet high, together with Leonide Massine's choreography that mixed dancing, acrobatics and mime, led the way to new directions in sound and visual style.

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