"'Noces' in the choreography of Nijinska . . . is, I'm sure, one of the finest things one can see anywhere. And if I could think of higher praise I would write it." So noted Edwin Denby, the dean of American dance critics, in 1936. The occasion was a revival by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of the ballet "Les Noces" ("The Wedding"), choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska to music by Igor Stravinsky and originally produced by the Diaghilev company in 1923. Denby's review moves on to an ecstatic appreciation of Nijinska's achievement, starting with: " 'Noces' is noble, it is fierce, it is simple, it is fresh, it is thrilling."
Denby's judgment underscores a great mystery: How could so highly esteemed a masterpiece have escaped the attention of the contemporary ballet public, which by and large has heard of Nijinska, if at all, only as the sister of the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and knows even less of "Les Noces," which hasn't been seen in this country since England's Royal Ballet staged it at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1966? The question is particularly appropriate since the work is about to receive its Washington-area debut in a new production by the Oakland Ballet supervised by Irina Nijinska, Bronislava's daughter and longtime assistant. The Oakland troupe will present "Noces" as part of its program Tuesday evening at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre, bringing this first American production of the opus to our environs prior to the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston at the end of this month.
Denby's appraisal of "Noces" is widely shared in the dance world and elsewhere. In the early years of its production history, however, the ballet--both the choreography and the score--provoked much controversy.
In England in 1926, for example, most of the press notices were negative. Among the work's defenders, however, was H.G. Wells, who exclaimed, "I do not know of any other ballet so interesting, so amusing, so fresh or nearly so exciting as 'Les Noces.' I want to see it again and again." Stravinsky, who was notorious for changing his mind about such things (he alternately damned and praised Nijinsky's version of his "Le Sacre du Printemps," for example), seemed ambivalent about Nijinska's dances for "Les Noces" at the time of the premiere; but in a published dialogue with Robert Craft in 1960, when asked whom he considered the most successful choreographer of his music during the Diaghilev period, unhesitatingly replied: "Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky's sister. Her choreography for the original productions of 'Renard' 1922 and 'Noces' 1923 pleased me more than any other works of mine interpreted by the Diaghilev troupe. Her conception of 'Noces' in blocks and masses . . . coincided with my ideas, as well as with the real--not realistic--decors."
Others who have heaped praise on the ballet have included Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, who danced in the Diaghilev production in 1924; Sir Frederick Ashton, who performed with Nijinska's own troupe in 1928 and worshiped her thereafter, and who invited the 75-year-old choreographer to stage "Les Noces" for the Royal in 1966; and Jerome Robbins, who has declared that his own version of "Les Noces," created for American Ballet Theatre in 1965, might never have been done if he had known Nijinska's work. (Stravinsky's "Noces" score has been the basis for numerous other choreographic versions by, for instance, Merce Cunningham, Maurice Bejart and Lar Lubovitch. A version by Elizaveta Anderson-Ivantzova, produced at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1929, became the first "Noces" to be seen in this country). I well remember my own first, and until now, only live encounter with the Nijinska version, during the '66 engagement of the Royal Ballet--like so many others at the time for whom this choreography was a revelation, I was thunderstruck: here was one of the supreme dance creations, profoundly original in form, sublime in impact, and worthy of comparison with the historic monuments of any other art form.
This brings us once again to the question of how "Les Noces" has evaded its due fame in this country. The main reason is the cost and difficulty of producing "Noces": Stravinsky's score calls for not only a sizable chorus, vocal soloists and a large percussion battery, but also four on-stage concert grand pianos and expert pianists to go with them. For a ballet that lasts about 25 minutes and does not occupy a full program, that's a tall order. Another reason has to do with the widespread underestimation of Nijinska, whose lot it was to be both a woman in a man's profession (choreographing classical ballets in the 1920s) and the sister of the most prodigiously adulated virtuoso in ballet history.
Perhaps what strikes one first about "Les Noces" as a ballet is Nijinska's astonishing use of the dance ensemble as an architectural mass--bodies link and cluster together into a series of expressively shaped monoliths, symbolic at once of the human community and of the feelings that bind it into one. The movement itself, with its turned-in postures and sharply angled limbs, not only violently wrenches the classical canon but reverses its fundamental aim--instead of an illusion of flight, "Les Noces" defines a weighted, earthward sinking, almost as if choreography were a process of sowing and planting.
"Les Noces" bears less resemblance to any ballets of its time than it does to the modern dance, not only of the Diaghilev era but of much more recent times. Its only real ballet precedent seems to have been the choreography of Nijinsky, which, by Bronislava's own account and Irina's too, was the inspirational starting point of her own work. It is not hard, in fact, to see "Les Noces" and Nijinsky's lost, revolutionary "Le Sacre du Printemps"--even from the little we now know about it--as sibling ballets: both are predicated on a novel, angular, almost anticlassical technique; both are about archaic ritual, Russian in lineament but universal in import; and both are wedded to equally innovative musical creations by Igor Stravinsky.
"Les Noces" depicts a peasant wedding, in three preparatory scenes and a final nuptial celebration, not as a "story," but rather as a sequence of progressively evolving tableaux. Nijinska herself described her premises and method in an article written for the Royal Ballet production but not translated or published until 1974. In it, she remarked that: "The music--'Les Noces'--the inner rhythm--its nature--its moods--deep and heavy with rare moments of joy--created the choreographic form. The choreography of 'Les Noces' allowed me to resume my new path--the raising of the so-called corps de ballet to the highest artistic level, expressing the whole ballet-action. In 'Les Noces' there would not be any leading parts; each member would blend through the movement into the whole. In my choreography the whole mass of the ensemble would have a 'voice' and be capable of creating choreographically as many nuances as does the whole orchestra."
Nijinska died, in Los Angeles, in 1972 at the age of 81. Only gradually are we arriving at a comprehensive understanding of her gifts and accomplishments. Many of her more than 80 ballets are irretrievably lost; the only one besides "Les Noces" that is practically accessible is "Les Biches," to the Poulenc score, created for Diaghilev in 1924 and preserved in the Royal Ballet repertoire.
The first part of Nijinska's memoirs, up to the First World War, were published only last year, in a handsome volume (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) translated and edited by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson--it is one of the most engrossing and vibrant books about a life in dance ever to come along. Virtually every page contains fascinating disclosures about Bronislava herself, her brother, the artistic and social circles in which they moved, and the metamorphosis of ballet in a time of exceptional ferment.
A minute but telling example: She explains that, during her childhood, her father, who was a dancer, often brought fellow performers home on returning from the theater. "We especially loved Jackson and Johnson, two young Negro music-hall artists, tap dancers, well-known throughout Europe as well as in their homeland, the United States of America. We developed a deep friendship with them. My first dancing lessons were from these two American tap dancers. They brought a small plank to our home one day, spread sand on it, and taught me how to tap dance on the plank. Stassik the elder brother of Bronislava and Vaslav was not interested in tap dancing, but when Vaslav saw how quickly I picked up the routine and its rhythms he joined the lessons. He was surprised to find it was not as easy as it looked."
Bronislava went forward from these lessons to a truly extraordinary career--as a dancer, first at the Maryinsky in St. Petersburg, then with her brother under Diaghilev (Stravinsky counted her, in this company, "second to none" in ability); as a teacher (Serge Lifar, who was to become a Diaghilev favorite, was her pupil, and among the students who passed through the school she established in Los Angeles in 1938 were Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Rosella Hightower, Allegra Kent, Cyd Charisse, Vera Ellen and Natalie Wood); and as a choreographer (first for Diaghilev, and later for many companies internationally). She was the original choreographer of Ravel's "Bolero" and "La Valse"; in 1926 she created an abstract ballet to the music of Bach, possibly the first of its kind; in her "Hamlet," in 1934, she danced the title role, and a year later she choreographed the magical woodland revels in Max Reinhardt's film of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Her last task was the mounting of "Les Noces" for the La Fenice theater in Venice, the year before she died.
The Oakland Ballet performance of "Les Noces" will have sets recreated from the original Natalie Goncharova designs. Stravinsky's libretto will be sung in English translation--unfortunately, the music will be on tape (rather than live, as in Spoleto). Also on the program will be "Fantasia Para Un Gentilhombre," choreographed by the troupe's director Ronn Guidi to music by Joaquin Rodrigo, and Eugene Loring's celebrated "Billy the Kid." The principal attraction, though, cannot help but be "Les Noces."