One ballet of the Ballet Russes, "Les Noces", is in the repertory of several ballet companies both in Europe and the States1, and inspires classical and contemporary choreographers alike. This essay will ask why Nijinska’s ballet is so popular, and which elements of this inheritance our contemporaries preserve or develop.
Stravinsky composed the score between the years 1914 and 19232, and when Diaghilev wanted to stage it, he asked Bronislava Nijinska to choreograph. She described her first hearing of Stravinsky’s work in 1922 as follows:
"The music stunned me, took possession of my senses, set me pulsing to its rhythms. Les Noces seemed to me deeply dramatic, interspersed with occasional bursts of gaiety."3
While she found the music inspiring, she did not accept the costume- and stagedesign Diaghilev had asked Natalie Gontcharova to draw4. She wanted something simpler, and through several drafts, the choreographer and the designer worked out the final monochrome, austere look of the set and costumes.
The result was a groundbreaking and powerful entity, disturbing to an audience who valued entertainment and exoticism.
The ballet is often described as breaking new grounds by exploring bodies in architecture- or sculpture-like forms. The epic describes a wedding, but there are no grand love pas-de-deuxes, nor does the couple look happy. A critic at the London premiere of the ballet described it as "enough to convert intending brides and bridegrooms to celibacy."5.
Still, the ballet contains several scenes of highly energetic dancing, where the youth celebrate the wedding. This gives the entire ballet a tension, especially strong in the last scene, when the stage is divided horizontally between the dancing, happy groups of men and women, and the seriousness of the couple and the parents on the plateau above. The ballet may here suggest that joy can be doctrinal. Then, the architecture-like shapes of the dance make sense: the audience may see them as visual "echoes" of the strong structures traditions imply. The ballet’s constructions, or "sculptures", are literally "man-made" – as are the wedding rituals. Or are bride and groom just touched by the serious moment, or by religious feelings?
The absence of a classical pas-de-deux also may serve to "generalize" the piece, signal that the ballet is not about this special couple, but all individuals within this cultural tradition. The difference between Gontcharova’s original costume drafts and the final result, may further elaborate this point: Nijinska did not want a ballet with an exotic feel, she wanted to draw the entire story closer to the audience. While keeping the Russian connotations, she did not want a "folkloristic" work.
This ballet is revived several times, and also re-choreographed. During our research for this presentation, we saw two revivals and one new version of "Les Noces". The version staged by the Royal Ballet, we thought had the most authentic feel, logically since Nijinska herself was involved in bringing the ballet back. The most recent, and radically changed, version we found, was Angelin Preljocaj’s choreography from 1988.
In Angelin Preljocaj’s version of "Les Noces", there are clear traces of Nijinska’s original in the choreography, but the main connection between the two versions might be the idea of certain traditions as manipulating.
In Preljocaj’s version, five couples dance. Their family or friends are not seen, perhaps reflecting that love life and marriage today is more an individual matter. He introduces five passive, human-size rag dolls, dressed as brides, which contrast the passionately red-dressed, strong women. The men certainly manipulate the dolls, often in brutal ways.
Preljocaj’s work is described as "veers between delicacy and brutality, sometimes alternating between pieces, sometimes within the same piece."6 This is very clear in "Noces".
The costumes are western, in spite of Preljocaj’s inspiration by Albanian wedding rituals. The idea probably resembles Nijinska’s, to avoid exoticism, and consequently generalise and actualise the ballet.
Personally, I think that this generalisation is a problem, because it implies that all western, married women, are manipulated and with no individual will power, an attitude I find slightly patronising.
Still, the ballet may be a liberating experience to women "raised to marry", and Preljocaj’s new version might thus be more in tune with Nijinska’s thoughts and working process, than the plainly revived ones.
Almost as an example of the irony of history, this choreography that seems to be about the constraints of tradition is itself perhaps the best preserved traditions from Diaghilev’s company.
In addition, the motifs, and working processes of Ballet Russes have changed the ways dances are created, and continues to be a source of inspiration to contemporary choreographers.