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Nijinska's Les Noces

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Bronislava Nijnska’s ‘Les Noces’, part of last spring’s ‘Stravinsky Staged’ season by the Royal Ballet, was filmed by the BBC and shown this week in Britain and Canada.

When Frederick Ashton became Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet he was determined to bring Les Noces into the repertory. De Valois had previously asked Robbins to choreograph the work for the company. Although designs were commissioned, the plans came to nothing. In an interesting sidelight on this, Ashton’s biographer Julie Kavanagh cites evidence that de Valois’s jealousy of Nijinska was the reason Les Biches was not then in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. This may also be a reason why de Valois had asked Robbins to choreograph Les Noces, and not chosen to revive Nijinska's original.

When Nijinska finally came to London to 1966 to stage Les Noces, she had, according to one account “all the demeanour of “an elderly peasant woman”. Notwithstanding that, there was a near immediate ‘love-match’ between her and the dancers in the company. Communication was not easy and Anthony Dowell still wonders at how the company learnt the ballet from her. David Drew, then a young dancer, and now a character principal, was more graphic: “The woman and her rehearsal methods were bizarre. To our younger eyes she was ancient. She allegedly spoke three languages, English, Russian and French, but had forgotten all of them. She had this huge old hearing aid with a long wire disappearing into her blouse somewhere and there was this huge receiving kit. You began to realise that if you wanted her to hear you, you had to bend down and talk into a rather pendulous left breast. That in itself was rather odd”.

Stravinsky described the music for Les Noces as a ‘cantata’. It is a very fierce and relentless score for chorus, four soloists, four pianos and percussion.

The ballet itself depicts a Russian peasant wedding. It divides into four tableaus – The Dressing of the Braids at the Bride’s Home, At the Groom’s, the Departure of the Bride, and the Wedding Meal (the wedding itself is not depicted). Bride and groom, here danced by Zenaida Yanowsky and David Pickering, are virtually anonymised. They have no say in their fates. The tableaus are of massed groupings of wedding guests. Their demeanour, and that of the cast, is impassive as the choreography moulds them into human pyramids and phalanxes. For the dancers the rhythmic complexities are immense: according to one, “we found ourselves counting, counting, counting all the time”. That said, the performance was one of the highlights of 2001 for the Royal Ballet. It works as effectively on television as on the stage.

The issues surrounding the filming of dance in an opera house setting are well known. A director is limited in his choices because the camera positions are fixed. On the other hand, there are obvious gains in seeing a live performance with an audience present. While most dance filmed in a theatre looks as if it is being filmed through a proscenium arch, Les Noces was different. It really did seem as if it could have been designed for television.

It is not hard to see why. The ballet is stripped down to its barest essentials. Natalia Gontcharova's designs are grimly functional, monochrome almost. Its architecture, the piles of bodies forming one geographic shape after another, works for the camera. The images are simple, direct and unmissable. Nijinska was accused by one of her critics of creating a ‘Marxist’ work “that swallowed the dancer”. Television can enhance the geometry and, if anything, can retrieve the dancer. The director’s eloquent use of close up, if anything, underscored some of Nijinska’s meanings – in particular the inability of bride and groom to rejoice in their fate.

The entire cast was superb. Without the Royal Ballet, Les Noces might not have survived at all. This staging shows proper care for an important legacy, and the television version does it homage. It should in time be available on DVD.

[ January 26, 2002: Message edited by: Brendan McCarthy ]

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Brendan (and all) - it was simply stunning today on BBC TV; the small screen scarcely diminished its power to move. To me, 'Les Noces' has always seemed a work of absolute genius and I find it hard to understand why it is almost unknown to many balletomanes - mention Les Noces and you get a blank stare. There's a certain tutu mentality out there which refuses to accept, or even consider, almost anything outside balletic cliches (and in my opinion the tutu is the biggest balletic cliche of all).

Alexandra, do you know if 'Les Noces' been danced by any of the US companies? I think it would look very good on ABT, but it would probably look equally good on NYCB or SFB - and of course we can dream nowadays that maybe the Kirov or the Bolshoi would take it on board. They ought to.

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The Joffrey Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem have both done it in recent years. ABT (and NYCB?) have Robbins' version in repertory, in theory.

I thought the Joffrey did an excellent job with Les Noces, one of the best things I ever saw them do.

There's a video of Paris Opera Ballet doing Les Noces (Platel-Belarbi) that I think is excellent, as well.

Thank you, Brendan, for that report -- you're lucky to have it on TV. Ann, I've only seen the Paris version on video, but I agree -- it does film well. It's wonderful to have a record.

Since this site is devoted to classical ballet and read by young ballet students, I have to put a word in for tutu ballets. smile.gif A tutu is only a costume, to me. Many ballets in which the dancers wear tutus are justly considered great. Very few choreographers use them in new works -- perhaps because they're so expensive! But I don't think Divertimento No. 15, or Scenes de ballet, or Gala Performance, to take the first mid-20th century works I can think of that use tutus, are cliched works. Les Noces uses the same structural rules and comes from the same source as Bayadere and Sleeping Beauty, and I don't think Nijinska couldn't have made Les Noces if she hadn't come from that tradition.

I definitely agree that Les Noces is an important ballet, a stunning ballet. I've always wanted to see more of Nijinska. I don't like "Les Biches" as much (also once in the Dance Theatre Harlem repertory), but I'd like to see more of her.

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Many thanks for this considered response, Alexandra. I certainly didn't mean to put down tutu ballets per se - my life would be infinitely the poorer without 'Sleeping Beauty' or 'Symphony in C', for example, and many others so it was probably thoughtless of me to describe the tutu as a balletic cliche. However, in the context of a work like Les Noces, it does seem that for some people a ballet without tutus and pink satin toe shoes isn't worth the name, and these, regrettably, include some of those who would describe themselves as 'balletomanes'. Sad.

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When Nijinska came to London to stage Les Noces for the RB, the bride was danced by Svetlana Beriosova. She certainly would have been able to communicate with Nijinska in either Russian or French as well as English.

When the work was staged in France, a friend of mine, the choreologist Juliette Kando (who also speaks fluent French) went to help out. She never complained to me about communication difficulties I shall certainly make a point of asking her about it.

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I too was curious about this and talked a few minutes ago to a dancer who was in the Royal Ballet in the 1960s (I hope to have lunch with her soon - and if you like, Alexandra, I can take my tape recorder along and try and get her to talk a bit about rehearsals with Nijinska).

By 1966 she was aged 74. Despite this, she had a most expressive body. "She was like a little ball", my friend told me. "She was very active. I remember she wore soft ballet shoes. Even though she waddled a bit, she really used to chase us around the room. Her husband was also there, I don't know if he was a dancer. He spoke English and used to translate. She would tell us the steps in French and Russian. If we did not understand, it was not the steps that we hadn't grasped, but the style".

"No, no, no", she would shout if she wasn't happy. "Second Stage". By 'Second Stage' she meant 'Second Cast'.

"We girls were terrified of her. The boys weren't. She loved the boys and they would play all sorts of tricks. She might say "one two three"; except that three sounded like 'chai' Ken Mason, who was a real joker, would say tea! tea! -and we'd all troop off to tea"

All this made me curious enough to make a quick internet search. I found an old Washington Post internet file with chapter 1 of Maria Tallchief's memoirs. There she describes the experience of being taught by Nijinska. Much of it chimes with what my friend in London told me. Here's a flavour:

"Madame's class was rigorous. Students weren't allowed to slouch at the barre or hang on it haphazardly, and we had to be conscious of each exercise. After we finished doing a step, we had to walk to the side and stand still with perfect posture until it was time to take our places for the next exercise. At the same time, Madame indicated that we should watch our fellow students closely and listen to every correction.

Because her English was practically nonexistent Madame Nijinska rarely spoke. She didn't have to. She had incredible personal magnetism and she radiated authority. Most of the time she demonstrated. It was hard to imagine her as a ballerina, but how she moved! Her footwork was phenomenal. She jumped and flashed around the studio. I was under her spell. The likes of Madame Nijinska were something I had never seen before.

Every day she dressed in the same pants and plain top; her ballet slippers had a slight heel. In her pointe class, we'd have to repeat steps over and over, learning how to balance and how to hold a position so that our entire backs were being utilized. She was very precise. In first position, elbows had to be held a certain way and the little finger had to touch the front of the thigh. If Madame could come by and move someone's elbow, the position was wrong.

She was insistent on port de bras, and she told us the reason her brother could jump so high and hover in the air so long was because of the control he had over his abdominals. It was from Madame Nijinska that I first understood that the dancer's soul is in the middle of the body and that proper breathing is essential.

Even though she wasn't verbal, Nijinska knew how to get her point across. She communicated with a firm tap on the shoulder. Her husband, Nicholas Singaevsky, sometimes translated, but his English wasn't much better than hers.

"Madame say you look like spaghetti," he'd explain, and the message was understood. He'd also expound her philosophy. "Madame say when you sleep, sleep like ballerina. Even on street waiting for bus, stand like ballerina."

There's more on this link

[ January 28, 2002: Message edited by: Brendan McCarthy ]

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I danced Nijinska's Les Noces in the 1981-82 season with the Oakland (CA) Ballet. The company was well known for reviving many of the staples of the Diaghilev repertory.

Nijinska's daughter Irina came with a choreologist-her name escapes me. It was fantastic to work with Irina and to perform a truly great work. I believe at the time we may have been one of the first American companys to do so. We filmed it as well, it was to be part of a Diaghilev documentary that was never completed. Our ballet master at that time, Howard Sayette, has restaged Les Noces a number of times since on various companys.

Please forgive my haste in writing this. I'm at work and writing too quickly.


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I watched this performance on tape last night. (I've only seen the ballet on tape, in the '78 film the Royal made.) If Ashton had never made a masterwork himself, saving this from oblivion would have earned him a star on his crown in heaven. I checked in the NYPL catalog records to see what other works of hers have been documented. Les Biches, a reconstruction of Le Train Bleu by Anton Dolin. The rest are all brief fragments.

I was very interested in how she used pointe work in the ballet, consciously restricting the vocabulary to mostly turned-in bourees, because of the emotional landscape and primitivism of the work. One usually uses pointwork to increase a woman's agility. Nijinska uses it here to hobble her almost like Chinese foot binding.

I made my own version of Les Noces in 1996, and only watched the Nijinska version once or twice before, because I could tell that I would never be able to get it out of my head. Watching hers again for the first time in five years, I'm not ashamed of what I made, but I wish it could have been even a fraction as contextually and conceptually perfect as her version. Ironically, the one movement I recall deliberately quoting from the '78 taping (the bride walking on the platform with the groom averting her gaze and shielding her face with her hands) I did not notice at all in this telecast.

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I presume that Leigh is contrasting the versions of Les Noces made by the BBC in 1978 and 2001. The first was filmed over a three day period at Ealing Studios in West London, while the second was filmed in live performance at the Royal Opera House.

In the 1978 version the director had the option of moving both his dancers and his cameras. The result is a very 'frontal', very pared down rendering of Les Noces, which is a quite literal account of the ballet's architecture. In the 2001 version, the director needed to take the ballet as he found it on the Covent Garden stage, shooting from three cameras at the back of the opera house, and six others at various side angles. As a result this version renders the architecture sometimes quite differently. I hesitate to come down on the side of one version or the other: both aesthetics are attractive in their different ways.

It raises a different point, and one about which I would be very interested to hear some opinions. The economics of television dictate that ballets are rarely now recorded in a studio. For the foreseeable future we can expect to see almost all productions filmed through a proscenium arch. Is this good or bad?

[ March 04, 2002, 06:55 AM: Message edited by: Brendan McCarthy ]

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:

I checked in the NYPL catalog records to see what other works of hers have been documented. Les Biches, a reconstruction of Le Train Bleu by Anton Dolin. The rest are all brief fragments.

Leigh, I don't know if it was Dolin's reconstruction, but the POB danced "Le Train Bleu" around 1993 (in a "Picasso" program, because the stage curtain was by Picasso), and it was filmed (with Le Riche as Le beau gosse, Maurin as Perlouse, Vayer as the tennis player, Quéval as the other man...) As far as I know, it has never been available commercially, but it was shown on the French TV twice (with also Massine's "Le Tricorne"). In my opinion, it is a much, much lighter work than "Les Noces", with less actual dancing, and it's less memorable- but of course it's hard to know how faithful the reconstruction is.

It is a bit sad to realize that so few works by Nijinska still exist. "Les Noces" is such a fascinating work that there must have been other valuable works by her...

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'picasso et la danse' translated so that the commentary was in english and entitled 'picasso and dance,' has been shown here and there, certainly in canada. the cassette was marketed, if mem. serves, in PAL format, (maybe jane s. could confirm/deny this) and was even promised in NTSC here in the USA but it never came out so far as i can tell. perhaps it will be released on DVD sometime, or maybe in PAL dvd it already it.

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Oops, I should have written that it hasn't been available commercially *in France*.

I'm curious: what did the PAL tape include? The French program also included Petit's "Le rendez-vous", but that one was never shown on TV, as far as I know.

Still about Nijinska: the POB danced "Les Biches" one season in the early 1990s, but hasn't been danced it since then.

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picasso/danse has consistently included, so far as i know, both 'train bleu' and 'tricorne' (i've never known 'rendez-vous' to be included on a commercial tape, PAL or otherwise). the work was, however, included in a triple bill that the POB toured to washington, d.c. as follows:



suite en blanc

but none of these has been made available on any commercial video i'm aware of.

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Hello, DGH -- I wonder who you are. I saw you dance in the Oakland Ballet's incredible performances of Les Noces in 1981 in Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. The building seemed to be exploding; the effect of the ballet was so tremendous. (The next day I bought Nijinska's Early Memoirs, which had just come out -- a very important book.)

The four pianos, percussion, and choir made a noise like I'd never heard before -- the score is just as powerful as the Rite of Spring -- and the impact of the sforzandi, the sudden incredibly violent attacks of sound, were like an earthquake.

The choreography lived up to it -- and the dancers were unbelievably committed, focussed, thrilling, possessed. It was probably the most exciting experience I've ever had at the ballet --literally exciting. They use toe shoes like tap shoes or Irish clogs and are HITTING the floor with them; the steps are bourrees, I guess, but htey're not light, they're heavy. EXTREME taqueterie.

ALso, the rest of the program was not so great, so the power of the ballet, and of their dancing, came as a surprise -- WHAT a surprise!!! I'd had NO IDEA you could do that with ballet (which, I think, is what the poster was referring to when she said ballet is not all about tutus....)

In Oakland Ballet: the First 25 Years, by the late Bill Huck, he lists the Oakland Ballet premiere as Sept 25, 1981; some of the 36 dancers: Johanna Breyer (bride), Mylene Kalhorn, Philip Sharper)(groom), Lance James [who, incidentally, was a great Billy the Kid, in a production that Loring himself preferred to all others], also Erin Leedom, Joy Gim, Mario Alonzo, and Michael Lowe.

Choreologist, Juliet Kando from the Royal Ballet; production overseen by Irina Nijinska.

It was big news all over the country. Huch quotes Walter Terry, who saw it performed at the Spoleto Festival:

"To see the Oakland Ballet dance Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces is an enthralling, bewitching, riveting experience....

"I recall [Terry continues] the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo restaging many years ago without much pleasure, and the more recent revival by Britain's Royal Ballet with great disappointment. Jerome Robbins's wholly new version [for ABT] made many of us think that Nijinska's original was obsolete. But no more. The Oakland Ballet has resurrected a masterwork of the Diaghilev era....

"It is not simply that the Oakland Ballet has reproduced an innovative and once controversial work with care and historical accuracy. [Terry continues] To the contrary, the company dances it as if it were new, as if the dancers were relishing its primitive energies for the first time.... The company is neither as large nor as technically polished as the Royal Ballet but its crudities are assets in this production."

{Huck goes on to say the following:

"Irina Nijinska, the choreographer's daughter, who had come to Oakland to oversee the new production, said the same thing but more succinctly: 'I knew they would dance it well. A company that strives only for classical perfection lacks the heavy character movement needed for Diaghilev ballets.'"

And I remember Joan Acocella saying something like that to a class she showed Oakland's Les Noces to in Berkeley.

The Oakland Ballet also commissioned the reconstruction of Nijinska's Le Train Bleu and of Bolero (originally made for Ida Rubenstein, refashioned a bit later when a more -- ahem--accomplished dancer took the part). Le Train Bleu was very light, but they made it charming (unlike Les Biches, which required a more elegant line and better entrechat-quatres than they could muster, as well as 3 hunky guys who could do perfect entrechat-sixes.... though Julie Lowe was lovely as one of the Lesbians, and Erin Leedom was brilliant as the page boy: she did unassisted pirouettes ending in sous-sus like a knife quivering in the floor, which completely erased my memory of Laura Connor, whom I'd seen do it at Covent Garden; Monica Mason, on the other hand, as the hostess, i can still see her playing with those pearls as her feet toyed with the floor.

I reviewed both Bolero and Train Bleu for Bay Area papers and will post those reviews if anyone wants to see them.

About televising Les Noces: I've noticed that tap comes through on film much better than ballet -- the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lose only a fraction of the excitement they must have generated in person, whereas Baryshnikov, Tallchief are NOTHING LIKE as exciting as I know from my own experience (well, at least with Baryshnikov) they were on stage. Just speculating, but I THINK this is because with tap you can HEAR the weight -- Les Noces ought to videotape well, since it is a percussive dance with the weight sent down rather than pulled up.

[ March 07, 2002, 12:44 AM: Message edited by: Paul Parish ]

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