Michael J. Novak in Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, photo by Costas
Last Saturday, the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and Barnard College’s Dance Department and Music Program joined forces to present “Celebrating the Ballets Russes in Music and Dance” at Miller Theatre. This event marked the centenary of the first Paris performances of Serge Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes. Upon introducing the performance, Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, director of the Harriman Institute, admitted that this was “a rather complicated collaboration”, one that undoubtedly involved months of planning. Fortunately, the audience was treated to a sophisticated evening of music and dance – all performed by current students at Columbia, Barnard, and the Manhattan School of Music.
The program opened with Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane for Violin and Piano. Diaghilev never commissioned a work to this dramatic 1924 piece, but he commissioned Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe in 1912, choreographed by Michel Fokine. Pavel Gintov’s piano playing and Elissa Cassini’s violin performance were utterly captivating. They both infused each note with the passion and gusto that can be heard in the richly colored music.
Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 Afternoon of a Faun is one of the landmark works of the Ballets Russes. Set to music by Claude Debussy and staged by Tina Curran based on a reconstruction by Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke, the short ballet is a work of adolescent sexual awakening. Moving mainly in profile, a faun carefully maneuvers his way around several fleeting nymphs. He briefly connects with one of them, and the piece ends with a masturbatory gesture that caused a scandal at its Paris premiere in 1912. Michael J. Novak breathed life into Nijinsky’s somewhat two-dimensional choreography. His performance conveyed the depth of the ballet’s nuances – a hand gesture or a tilt of the head – with intention and sensitivity to timing. The chief nymph, Marygrace Patterson, and six accompanying nymphs were delicate and precise in their ensemble work.
Dancers in Afternoon of a Faun, photo by Costas
In 1923, the Ballets Russes premiered Igor Stravinsky’s choral masterpiece Les Noces (The Wedding), with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. The stage at Miller Theatre was just large enough to hold the four pianists, tympani, principal singers, and full chorus that this musical work requires. The ensemble was capably led by Gail Archer, director of the music program at Barnard and conductor of the Barnard-Columbia Chorus. Les Noces is a painful telling of a Russian peasant wedding that feels – and sounds – more like a funeral. The opening female soloist expresses the bride’s fear of departing from her mother at such a young age, while the chorus echoes her emotions and mourns for the bride and her family. The soloists’ voices were occasionally overwhelmed by the severity and intensity of the music – particularly the excellent percussion – and in spite of singing in English, the lyrics were not always clear. But the music alone was more than satisfying. Les Noces is infrequently performed because of its musical requirements, so listening to a powerful, well-rehearsed performance was a treat.
Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Lynn Garafola, a Barnard dance professor and historian who produced the program, should be proud of this successful evening, which certainly would not have been possible without the time and effort that the students, coaches, and coordinators devoted to the performance.
The celebration of the Ballets Russes continues this summer. Beginning in June, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will present “Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and its Aftermath”, an exhibit that celebrates and explores the ballet company’s impact on the dance world.