A Controversial Masterpiece: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn - Michigan Opera Theatre

A Controversial Masterpiece: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn

By Jon Teeuwissen, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Advisor for Dance

Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the famous Ballets Russes, was one of the 20th century’s most influential and important purveyors of art. A distinguished Russian impresario, he became a central figure in the artistic worlds of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin and Madrid in the late 1800s/early 1900s.    

Diaghilev’s most famous dancer was Vaslav Nijinsky, who was eager to explore his own hand at choreography. Claude Debussy’s composition, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faunwas based on a poem by poet Stéphane MallarméDebussy and Mallarmé originally conceived the piece as a theatrical project, which never came to fruition. The scorepremiered in 1894, went largely unnoticed. Nijinsky’s premiere of the ballet would have the opposite effect. 

It was Diaghilev who suggested that Nijinsky usDebussy’s score, now considered a quintessential example of musical Impressionism, for his first ballet. There were two reasonfor this: it already existed and therefore was less of an investment than commissioning a new piece of music, and it was short - approximately 10 minutes long - so should the new ballet fail, it could be easily removed from a program without having to be replaced. 

Diaghilev was well aware of Nijinsky’s lack of musical background, and steered him towards the more theatrical aspect of choreography. Diaghilev pushed the theory of Swiss music pedagogue Emile Jaques-Dalcroze that in dance, music was subordinate to, and should be comprehended through, movement, rather than the other way around.” Diaghilev also arranged for Nijinsky to study with Dalcrozewhose influence is questionableaby that time Nijinsky had already sketched out much of his new ballet. 

Nijinsky, along with Léon Bakst, who designed the décor and costumes, had become enchanted by ancient Greek and Egyptian art. Nijinsky was inspired to choreograph a “moving bas-relief,” danced all in profile (think “walk like an Egyptian”). Some might consider his first effort more movement than dance. 

Nijinsky stayed true to the dreamlike ambience of Mallarmé’s poem. A section of the poem translates as follows: “Don’t leave me be; Don’t kill my thrill; I’ve been waiting for you; Don’t leave me be.”  

The synopsis of the ballet is that a faun - a half-man half-goat creature of Greek legend – wakes from his slumber and encounters some beautiful nymphs in the woods, elusive objects of his desire. Startled by his observing them, the forest nymphs flee, one losing her scarf. The faun retrieves the scarf as a love trophy, caresses it, lovingly spreads it over a rock, and lays on top of it.    

As the ballet reaches its climax, so does the faunfinal orgasmic shudder ends the ballet. It was this closing gesture that created such wild controversy (and sold tickets). Nijinsky’s premiere of the ballet caused a sensation. According to historical accounts, the attentive audience was hushed during the performance, but as soon as it ended, enthusiastic applause broke out, complete with equal parts cheers and jeers. 

The 1912 premiere created an absolute scandal that was kept alive for days, thanks to the front-page newspaper articles, which were split into two camps, classifying Nijinsky’s new ballet as either trash or treasure. Considered by some to be movement bestial in its eroticism, Nijinsky toned down the final gesture by the ballet’s second performance. The slightly revised version was well received, with cheers of Encore! Although much attention has been paid to the famously rousing ending to the ballet, the reason that Faun earned such an important place in dance history is because of Nijinsky’s analytical approach to the movement and his opening the door to abstraction in dance.  

Rudolf Nureyev, a danseur noble, is considered one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century, and the first male superstar of the ballet world since Nijinsky. Nurtured and trained in Russia, while touring Europe with the Kirov Ballet, he famously defected to the West where he would enjoy artistic freedom.  

Nureyev was known for both his fiery virtuosity and his charismatic, passionate temperament. He achieved great fame in the 1960s due to his acclaimed partnership with ballerina Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet, and eventually danced in America with the Joffrey Ballet and with American Ballet Theatre.  

Robert Joffrey, founder and artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, had huge respect for Diaghilev. The first professional ballet he experienced was the Ballets Russes production of Petrushkaon tour in Seattle. Joffrey fashioned himself a modern-day Diaghilev, committed to both preserving the historic work while also commissioning cutting-edge contemporary work. He kept many of the Ballets Russes ballets active by bringing them into the Joffrey repertoire, even reconstructing lost” ballets from the period, including Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring. During my tenure as executive director at the Joffrey, I got to experience several of the Diaghilev ballets, and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was a featured piece during the company’s 50th Anniversary Season. 

It is only right that Nureyev would have chosen the Joffrey Ballet as the company he would dance the role originated by Nijinsky in Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun. This production was originally seen in a special limited run on Broadway, and was later televised on PBS in 1981 as “Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet/In Tribute to Nijinsky,” part of a “Dance in America” presentation 

Please use the link below to experience Nijinsky’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunEnjoy!