Igor Stravinsky Worked

By Otto-Knapp, Silke | Artforum International, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Igor Stravinsky Worked


Otto-Knapp, Silke, Artforum International


IGOR STRAVINSKY WORKED on the music for Les Noces--the 1923 ballet that is the original source for I Do, the third and final part of Michael Clark's "Stravinsky Project"--for nearly ten years, commencing almost immediately after he finished The Rite of Spring. Bronislava Nijinska, who choreographed Les Noces, did not begin the actual work on the ballet's staging until 1921, but it could be argued that she, too, had spent almost an entire decade preparing for it. In 1914, Nijinska had left Paris, where she and her brother Vaslav Nijinsky danced with Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, in order to return to her native Russia. During the following seven years she opened her School of Movement in Kiev and developed her theories of dance while collaborating with artists such as Alexandra Exter and Natalia Goncharova. Once back in Paris, she was thus able to approach the work on Les Noces with a new vocabulary--one defined by an uncompromising abstraction of classical ballet, reflecting both the political and social realities of the Soviet state and the formal concerns of Constructivism.

Stravinsky's composition for four pianos, tuned and untuned percussion, choir, and four solo singers seems both modern and archaic in its intensity: It describes a Russian peasant wedding yet is presented as a sacred drama, an inescapable fate awaiting the bride. To dramatize this basic narrative, Nijinska deploys large groups of dancers, strictly divided by gender, performing asymmetrical patterns and ritualistic sequences and almost always facing the audience with a flat frontality. In its aesthetic and attitude, then, her choreography is as distinctly modernist (and archaic) as Stravinsky's score: The dancing follows the given narrative but concentrates it into an abstract ritual with such formal devices as mechanistic movements, friezelike compositions (that are held and repeated by the formations of dancers), blank facial expressions, and fast rhythmic pointe work that Nijinska derived from hair-braiding patterns used in traditional wedding rituals. Equally significant is the way her choreography assumes a collective body, foregrounding the collective over the individual--challenging the privileges of the soloist in the hierarchy of classical ballet while at the same time positioning Les Noces within her experience of revolutionary Russia. In fact, by staging the wedding as a compulsory social ritual to which the bride is subjected, Nijinska's work offers a protofeminist approach that--like her reduced aesthetic and graphic treatment of space and image--remains relevant and interesting. It is not surprising that Les Noces, however clearly anchored it is in the political and cultural concerns of its time, should be one of the few classic works by a female choreographer that is still performed by contemporary ballet companies.

In I Do, Clark addresses both the history of Nijinska's original staging and the urgency that drives Stravinsky's music. While he refers to the original libretto's wedding ritual throughout, he departs from the narrative structure of events. …

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