michael j. morris


Presenting Nijinska, etc.

Suffice to say, this quarter of grad school seems to be my busiest thus far. As such, my blogging has become a bit more infrequent. But I did want to offer a brief description of my most recent contribution to the field of dance.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Midwest Slavic Conference being held here at OSU. I presented on a panel entitled “Aspects of the Ballets Russes” with my colleague Hannah Kosstrin. She presented a fascinating paper exploring vestiges of the Ballets Russes in American popular culture, specifically making a comparative choreographic analysis between Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Michael Jackson’s music video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” 

I presented a paper entitled “The Negotiation of Gender in the Work of Bronislava Nijinska.” It is an excerpt from longer work exploring the negotiation of gender in the performance and choreography of both Nijinsky and Nijinska. For this particular presentation, I limited myself to choreographic analyses of Les Noces and Les Biches. Sadly, Nijinska has been extremely under-recognized, and when she has been recorded or discussed, it is most often in relationship to her brother. It was exciting to have this opportunity to share my experience of her and her work to an academic audience.

Resisting the urge to copy-and-paste the entire paper, I will try to highlight the major points of my presentation. As I said, it was primarily a choreographic analysis of the negotiation of gender in Nijinska’s Les Noces and Les Biches. I presented Les Noces as demonstrating gender as an expression not of individual identity but of social will. Noces is the depiction of a Russian peasant wedding in four scenes. One of my main points was that although it is a wedding supposedly between one man and one woman, the central figures of the ballet, the Bride and the Bridegroom, are essentially inactive, passive figures, surrounded, moved, and eventually upstaged by the massive active groupings of their community. Although presented as discrete figures, they appear without discretion. Nijinska seems to present this young woman and young man as symbols both of those oppressed by the social expectations attached to gender and of the means by which they are oppressed, epitomes of woman and man and all of that those roles represent.

Yet there is a subliminal break from this thematic binary. Although she clearly addresses the oppressive roles of woman and man, the movement vocabulary of the ballet remains primarily genderless. Spatial groupings of men and women dissolve to form a genderless mass. Absent is the traditional partnering and support work previously inherent in ballet. Even the steps and gestures of the masses hold little distinction between male and female. What I suggest is that Nijinska presents a “solution” choreographically (the in-distinction of gender) to the problem she addresses thematically.

Les Biches I discuss primarily as returning gender and its expression to the realm of the individual. Gone are the passive figures represented in Les Noces. In Biches, we are given a vibrant cast of characters each with a distinct sexual and gender identity. This ballet is rooted not in narrative or plot, but in the expression of these characters, the negotiation of their roles with one another. These roles range from parody of popular gender roles of the 1920s (in the Girls in Pink, and the Male Athletes), to divergent sexual expressions (the Girls in Grey, a pair of young sapphists), to the ambiguous characters who seem to lie in the realm of the “third sex”, neither clearly male nor female in their gender identity (namely, the Hostess (Nijinska’s own role), and the Garçonne). These characters of the “third sex”, both female, transgress social and physical roles of what was expected of women. In them, Nijinska separates biological fact from social reality, and this would seem to me to be the success of the ballet.

Here are a few photos from the presentation (mostly from the Royal Ballet):

Les Noces

Les Noces

 

Les Noces (from the Joffrey Ballet)

Les Noces (from the Joffrey Ballet)

Les Noces

Les Noces

 

Les Biches, Girls in Pink

Les Biches, Girls in Pink

 

Les Biches, Male Athletes

Les Biches, Male Athletes

 

Les Biches, Girls in Grey

Les Biches, Girls in Grey

Les Biches, Nijinska as the Hostess

Les Biches, Nijinska as the Hostess

 

Les Biches, the Hostess

Les Biches, the Hostess

Les Biches, the Garçonne

Les Biches, the Garçonne

 

Les Biches, Nijinksa with Georgina Parkinson as the Garçonne

Les Biches, Nijinksa with Georgina Parkinson as the Garçonne

 

And here is the version of Les Noces that I used for my analysis of the choreography:

 

 

 

 

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of the presentation was the diversity of fields represented in the audience. Those listening came from the fields of dance, Slavic studies, and musicology, all of whom have ties to the work that we were addressing. It reminded me of an awareness brought to the forefront by the “Synchronous Objects” project, that what we view and study and consider as dance is in fact a complex phenomenon with relevance in many fields, and the way in which we define a thing (such as dance or choreography) comes entirely out of the lens or context through which we are viewing it. I was extremely aware of this condition as I spoke about what I think of as the choreography of Nijinska, but is also thought of as a part of the legacy of Stravinsky, or an expression of Slavic folk custom and ritual. And it is in fact all of those things simultaneously; its “meaning” or relevance is not an intrinsic quality, but a quality that emerges out of engagement with it. the way in which it is engaged shapes the meaning that emerges.

Other ideas/influences in my dancing/creative/researching life right now are:

-Somatic studies (developing deep listening within the body and an awareness of the individual Self through its expression in bodily experience)
 -Labanotation: I am currently taking Laban II, learning Yvonne Ranier’s “Trio A” and the Sylph variation in Act II of La Sylphide from Labanotated scores. I am also digging deeper into the theory of the notation system in preparation for a Labanotation Teacher Certification Course I am taking this summer.
-Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, which seeks primarily to connect the nature of meaning to the embodied nature of experience.
Teaching Seminar with Susan Hadley, challenging me to think through what it is I value in the teaching of dance techinque
-History, Theory, and Literature of Choreography with Karen Eliot and Melanie Bales
-Modern technique with CoCo Loupe (rocking my world)

Etc.

 

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