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.

 



Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes

This article was published this week in the New York Times, taking a brief (if not strongly opinioned) look at the centennial of the Ballets Russes:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/arts/dance/08maca.html?_r=1&ref=dance

Macaulay mentions tributes to the Ballets Russes being presented worldwide. I was interested in what these might be and have done some browsing. Here is what I have found:

On May 16th through May 23rd 2009, Boston will host a festival marking one hundred years since Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered in Paris in May 1909. You can find more info here.

As part of this festival, the Boston Ballet will be presenting four Ballets Russes ballets, including Le Spectre de la Rose (Fokine), L’apresmidi d’un Faune (Nijinsky), The Prodigal Son (Balanchine), and a new interpretation of Le Sacre du Printemps by Jorma Elo. Info on those performances can be found here

Ballet West is presenting a concert entitled “Treasures of the Ballets Russes,” featuring The Polovetsian Dances (Fokine), Les Biches (Nijinska), and The Prodigal Son (Balanchine). More information can be found here. I am rather curious about this performance, because to my knowledge there is no surviving film, video, or notation of Les Biches. This performance does credit the original choreography by Nijinska; I am most curious about the source of this choreography. Nijinska is something of a passion of mine, and while I would be more than thrilled to see her work, I am wary of its misrepresentation.

The Australian Ballet is staging work in celebration of Ballets Russes, including a new interpretation of Firebird by Graeme Murphy, Petrouchka and Les Sylphides (Fokine). More info here.

Not necessarily related to the centennial of the premiere of the Ballets Russes, I am potentially presenting a paper and participating in a panel discussion at the 2009 Midwest Slavic Conference here at OSU. The paper is originally “The Negotiation of Gender in the Work of Nijinsky and Nijinska,” looking at their treatment of gender in their performing and choreographic careers. The paper I present will have to be truncated out of necessity, and may focus on the choreographic work of either Nijinsky or Nijinska (I haven’t yet decided). More details about this will follow pending the approval of my abstract and panel.

All in all, an exciting year for the Ballets Russes. I’m sure there are more events out there. If you hear of any, feel free to comment and mention them here. I have no idea how my schedule will look, but I am seriously considering finding a way to attend this festival/performances/symposium in Boston in May. We’ll see how that works out.

 

Best.



Les Noces
4 December, 2008, 5:05 pm
Filed under: research | Tags: , , , , ,

I am presently concluding research and authoring a paper on the effects of Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska on the presentation and perception of gender in early 20th ballet. In the work that the two produced (Nijinsky’s first three of four ballets, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du Printemps; two of Nijinska’s ballets, Les Noces and Les Biches), the roles of gender in society and in the ballet were radically challenged, disregarded, or overthrown. 

I will resist the urge to compose an abstract of the paper here and now, but I did want to give a sense of another aspect of my current research. I thought I would offer you links to video footage of Bronislava Nijinska’s first significant ballet. It was produced in 1923, presented first in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Nancy Van Norman Baer says of the ballet: it was “a primitive ritual where both the bride and the groom are trapped by fate and repressive social custom.”

Nijinska herself wrote of her ballet: “I saw a dramatic quality in such wedding ceremonies of those times in the fate of the bride and groom, since the choice is made by parents to whom they owe complete obedience–there is no question of mutuality of feelings. The young girl knows nothing at all about her future family nor what lies in store for her. Not only will she be subject to her husband, but also to his parents. It is possible that after being loved and cherished by her own kind, she may be nothing more, in her new, rough family, than a useful extra worker, just another pair of hands. the soul of the innocent is in disarray–she is bidding goodbye to her carefree youth and to her loving mother . . .”

So here are videos of Nijnska’s Les Noces. It is one of the most powerful historical ballets I have seen in quite some time. It is in three parts on youtube, but well worth the watch. Remember that this were performed in 1923, and is a commentary on the role of marriage in Russian peasant traditions. Enjoy:

part one:

part two:

part three:



Nijinsky, etc.
23 November, 2008, 12:56 am
Filed under: creative process, research | Tags: , , ,

Earlier tonight a friend of mine expressed her concern for me being shut up inside my house with these ghosts. . . and that’s a bit what it feels like, submerging myself in this research on Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska. I have read Vaslav’sDiary and Bronislava’s Memoirs and I feel so familiar with them right now. I am presenting research this week on the relationship between Nijinsky and Serge Diaghilev and the affects of the relationship on Nijinsky’s work. Then I am writing a paper on the work of Nijinsky and Nijinska and their affects on the presentation and perception of gender in the early 20th century ballet. This research is consuming my life at the moment.

I am also considering overhauling my choreographic process right now. I had an informal showing of the piece on which I am working right now this past Thursday, and I was struck by what I saw (somehow in a new lens, just having outside viewers). I am considering scrapping about half of what I have created, set, and rehearsed, in favor of a more simple, subtle articulation of my intention. It could be stunning. And the question now becomes if I can release this material, honoring it for the role it played in getting me and this piece to this new crisis point, but recognizing that it may or may not be essential in the final presentation of the work. This would be a new step for me in my process, allowing the work to shift so dramatically from this initial plan. Generally when I begin work on a piece I have a sense of its arch, the entire direction in which it is moving. Partly that is because of the lengthy incubation period through which my concepts germinate. . . so that when I finally move into the studio to create/teach/structure/rehearse movement, I have a clear vision of where I am going. That was the same with this piece. . . it has been steeping since some time in the spring. . . and yet now, faced with its embodiment, I am deciding to take it in another direction. Which is a bit terrifying, but more objectively, most likely a positive shift in my process, allowing myself to let go, be more present in the now, truly see what it is I am looking at rather than clouding my vision with images of what I want to be looking at. . .

We’ll see how this all turns out.

It is amazing to think how close we are to the end of the quarter.



Research and Love
9 November, 2008, 4:16 pm
Filed under: Ontology | Tags: , , , ,

I don’t really have time to be blogging right now. I am sifting through a pile of books for two different/related research projects. The first is an oral presentation of Vaslov Nijinsky, specifically the effect his life and work had on the perception of the sexual/gender identity of the male dancer. The second continues this research with a look as his sister Bronislava Nijinska, comparing and contrasting her effects on the perception of sexual/gender identity with those of her brother.

I came across a line at the end of The Queer Afterlife of Vaslov Nijinsky by Kevin Kopelson, where he quotes a poem by W. H. Auden. Auden wrote:

“We must love one another or die.”

Kopelson goes on to discuss:
“[This] final line is famous. Forster, for one, felt that because Auden “once wrote ‘We must love one another or die,’ he can command me to follow him.” Auden himself, however, came to view this line as dishonest, both because we die whether or not we love one another and because the kind of love he values isn’t a “hunger,” an instinctive–or purely sensual–need. Rather, it’s a gift we bestow as a form of forgiveness. . .”

This is a line which struck me, and I was interested in dropping it into this creative space, seeing how it exists alongside the other thoughts previously explored here. How ideas such as love (which is central to my ontology) and forgiveness (in which I have a difficult time believing) co-exist/relate to subjects such as inequality in America, research, creative process, Meredith Monk, the Love Art Lab, etc.