Three: Exercising Concerns

By now it should be clear I am critical of any simple juxtaposition of
performance and history, repertoire and archive. Yet, Taylor’s call to
think of performance on its own terms – in relation to other
performances rather than written texts – has drawn my attention to what
are the scenarios or ghosts evoked in works like Jeux: re-imagined. As
someone engaged in critical thinking on authorship, I was quite aware
that even re-imagining the 1913 Jeux would reinforce the hegemonic
status of its choreographic author-figure, Vaslav Nijinsky, who composed
the libretto and danced the male part with Tamara Karsavina and
Schollar in the female roles. But the particular scenario always
reiterated with Jeux was one of sexual imbroglio and of gendered use of
power – and it was this scenario that alarmed me the most precisely
because I had already seen it reiterated in every return to this point of

In the past century, there have been a number of reconstructions and reworkings of Jeux, as well as original works with the same title to the music of
Debussy: from Jean Börlin’s choreography for the Ballets Suèdois (1920) through Kenneth MacMillan’s compositions illustrating the work in Herbert
Ross’s biopic, Nijinsky (1980), and the so-called reconstruction by Millicent Hodson (1994), to John Neumeier’s (2000), Wayne Eagling’s (2012),
Dominique Brun’s (2013), or Helen Pickett’s (2015) more recent evocations of Nijinsky and his futuristic tennis. The increased frequency of these
performed returns to Jeux indicates both that the status of the choreographer as a ‘genius’ has been reinforced relatively recently and that performance
has brought about this reinforcement. Moreover, the manner in which the figure of the choreographer haunts these returns is itself a scenario reiterating
rather tiresome narratives of artistic creation.

Admittedly, for a good reason: sex sells. In 1912, Nijinsky had choreographed to Debussy’s earlier tone poem, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, The Afternoon of
a Faun, a piece scandalous in part because the faun masturbated on stage. With the same composer and same set designer – Léon Bakst, famed for the
luxurious colours of his sets and titillating costume designs – audience expectations of
Jeux were geared towards another such scandal. A fortnight after
the first performance of
Jeux, Nijinsky’s stomping primitives to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, The Rite of Spring, incited one of the most
notorious theatrical ‘riots’ of the twentieth century. Bracketed by outrage and by Nijinsky’s institutionalisation in 1919, Jeux essentially failed to be
provocative enough. After only five performances in Paris and three in London, the work was dropped from the company repertory after its choreographer
quarrelled with his former lover, the impresario Diaghilev. It is still seen as a ‘lesser work’ in the history of the Ballets Russes, and in the spectacularly
short career of its choreographer. However, as the last major concert work and the only ballet Debussy ever finished,
Jeux has achieved a particular
status in the narrative of ‘great works of classical music’ (meaning concert music in the European idiom) – if one that rests on ignoring its narrative
framework (McGinness 1996, esp. 107–108).

With Jeux, the one constant in the performed returns is the sexual threesome that bothered the 1913 spectators, reinforced by Nijinsky’s later spiteful
remark in his so-called Diary (Nijinsky 1991, 123) that Jeux was Diaghilev’s homosexual fantasy. In other words, Jeux is read in the manner Linda Nochlin
(1995, 149) has aptly called “a frequent misperception of what art actually is”, namely:

the naïve idea that art is the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is
almost never that, great art never is. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given
temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship,
or a long period of individual experimentation. The language of art [- -] is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.

Since Jeux: re-imagined would inevitably reiterate this confusion of the choreographer’s personal life as explanation for staged action (particularly
frequent with any authors designated with ‘genius’, as Nijinsky has been: Järvinen 2014, 184–185) as well as allude to his name as a genius-author
worthy of this return, it is unlikely that I would have accepted Liisa’s invitation had she been interested in either Nijinsky’s person or creating a

Little documentation of the movement material of the 1913 Jeux remains: the choreographer’s notes (Debussy &
Nijinsky s.a.), a few publicity shots of still poses composed for the camera (e.g. Comœdia illustré 5 June 1913),
and a few remarks in reviews and drawings that illustrate how contemporaries interpreted the work (Valentine
Gross in op.cit.; cf. Emmanuel Barcet in Revue musicale S.I.M. June 1913; cf. Dorothy Mullock in Whitworth
1913, after 74; cf. René Blum in Johnson 1913, 189, 193, 195, 196). For a historian, it is obvious these
interpretations cannot be consolidated into a singular whole. History is not some kind of a puzzle with perhaps
some missing pieces (as Hodson 1990 claims); rather, what is relevant in what remains of the past is neither
constant nor self-evident. Moreover, some of what remains 
has more narrative strength. This narrative strength is
not an asset, rather on the reverse: narratives further simplify the complexity of experience into explanation
which, historically speaking, is unlikely to be very accurate. In the studio setting, issues of gatekeeping and
simplification required of narrative practices like history had to be evoked. I found that I had to struggle with
keeping these materials as open for the dancers’ imagination as possible, and one way to do that was to focus
on the contradictions in the source materials.

In advance of our first rehearsals, Liisa and I thought of tasks and exercises through which the choreography could emerge in the studio practice. The first
task we decided upon was based on verbal descriptions. I read out fragments from the programme notes, reviews, and the choreographer’s notes,
focusing on metaphors such as “The other girl sits like a mushroom under a bush during the entire time of the dance” (Debussy & Nijinsky s.a., [384]–
[387]) and “All three, their bodies pressing together, depict a basket” (op.cit. [672]). Liisa and I made notes as Anna, Maija, and Jouni began to move,
keeping to their personal movement styles and calling out words they recalled or associated with their current improvisation. After discussion on what
Liisa and I had written down, the dancers selected three to five associations and worked them into what Liisa calls ‘embodiments’, meaning the form an
image or concept takes in the body. Over the course of the rehearsals, the word called out during this exercise became a name for a particular
embodiment, an aide-de-mémoire for corporeal recall, acquiring a deictic rather than indexical relation to the 1913 texts as the embodiment itself became
metonymic rather than metaphorical, the movement separated from any obvious narrative or symbolic meanin

In the video below, Jouni is doing ‘flowerbed’. Originally, flowerbeds were mentioned as one of the items on stage not considered beautiful in and of
themselves but connoting contemporary life. The 1913 choreography also begins with the male dancer leaping over one, as illustrated by Valentine Gross
in one of her gouaches. Jouni’s first association was to shift the perspective to thinking as a 
flowerbed, or giving agency to the flowerbeds. However, as
with Anna’s ‘path’ or Maija’s ‘tree’, there is no assumption in the embodiment that the audience would ever associate what is danced with a path, tree, or
flowerbed, or even notice these are embodiments of scenic elements.

The other exercise we used was a simple experiment in mimicry, trying to assume poses from the publicity photographs of the 1913 production, still and
posed for the camera but suggesting movement. In 1913, staged performance relied on the tableau convention (Brewster & Jacobs 1997, esp. 19–29,
34–8, 48–74), so it plausible these poses would have corresponded to still moments in the choreography, the stillness marking significance in terms of
narrative or 
affective content. In practice, we found the images surprisingly difficult to decipher, containing more nuances than immediately obvious.

Taking the idea of tableau as halting movement, the second part of this exercise then used the dance makers’ insight about how the poses held
movement potential to imagine how to move into and out of the still pose. We also contextualized the exploration with what else we could find of the
period – such as images of tennis players. Later in the rehearsal process, we used the same exercise with gouaches by Valentine 
Gross, and discussed
differences between this artist’s impressions and the photographs. We found that this method of creating movement focused our attention so that a lot of
the choreographic material from the first week of rehearsals ended up in the final composition as recurring motifs.

What is crucial for this exercise is that we did not use mirrors or correct each other, as the task was for each to find their incorporation of a pose and its
movement potential rather than mimic with accuracy or fix the movement. Reconstruction tends to give priority to how a body looks to an outside eye, the
accuracy of repeating the remains of a past dance. This emphasizes the idealist model of choreography, where the dancers always-already fail
perfect execution of an absent author’s ideal image that is the ‘true’ choreography (see Monni 2007, 39–43). Fortunately, Liisa had deliberately invited
artists with distinctive movement practices but shared training background at the Amsterdam School for New Dance Development (SNDO). A shared
vocabulary and understanding of contemporary dance practice 
as well as experience in choreography thus facilitated the process of making Jeux: re-
A training that emphasizes dancers’ exploration of movement potential produces artists open to variation and difference in ways that I as a
historian found crucial when we thought of different ways of assuming a pose or doing “the same” movement. By doing, we found how exactly the male
role dominates that of the female roles in the images, what minute changes like the tilt of the head or position of fingers implies in terms of attitude
affect, and that the practical restrictions of gravity, kinetics, and human physiology dictate the relationship of movement and the particular stillness of
the pose, especially a pose with three people. An obsolete stage convention suddenly became far more: a technique requiring particular skills that we
actually still rely upon in creating other kinds of staged effects.

As with the first exercise, each of the performers again selected from the second exercise those poses they found particularly appealing. They next rehearsed ways of moving into and out of them until they felt they had incorporated them into their own movement vocabulary. This was not always easy. At one point, Maija said she found the imitation evoked her ballet training in ways that were not fruitful precisely because ballet’s emphasis on a ‘correct’ line and way of doing interfered with her choreographic process. The resurfacing of a particular dance technique and training speaks not only of the power of imitation as a pedagogical tool but of the archival quality of the body and the body’s ability to draw from and revert to movement habits and patterns. Thinking in movement thus also involves awareness of this individual archive, which may even be an imaginary one as our aging physique recalls but cannot do, and infers when it has not done.

Instead, pointing to illustrations by Valentine Gross in the 1913 souvenir programme (Comœdia illustré 5 June
1913), Liisa argued that the dancing bodies attest how Jeux was contemporary dance, in the sense used to
distinguish these recent forms from 
modern dance of the mid-twentieth century and postmodern dance of the late
1960s onwards. Given that contemporaneity, modernity, and movement of modern bodies were crucial themes
for the 1913 production (Nijinsky’s interview in Le Figaro 14 May 1913), I was intrigued by the possibilities of
working out what this ‘contemporary dance’ might be in practice. Could the studio be used in what Mark Franko
(1989) calls deconstruction of past dance to tease out what remains of contemporaneity in archival sources?
Could we
device ways to make audiences question how the danced performance was created? By pointing to
how the bodies positioned in the stage space of 1913 are specifically not balletic, Liisa’s formal starting point for
exploring sources of a dance no-one alive has danced or seen encouraged me to rethink the positionality of a
historiographer as well, to step into my zone of discomfort and unease.