Nijinski’s World

Scribbles in the archive. This is sometimes all we have to help us understand historic events that were powerful in their own time and still influential in our own. Take the premiere of Nijinski’s “Rite of Spring” in Paris in  for example. It caused a riot when it was performed and still marks a cataclysmic shift in the expressive possibilities of theatrical dance.

The raw energetic music composed for the ballet by Igor Stravinsky was notated in a score that still exists. Thus, the music for the ballet has been performed by symphonies all over the world ever since. The ballet has also been performed but not nearly as often: the riot-inducing dance movements choreographed by Vaslav Nijinski are not nearly as clearly preserved on paper.

This does not mean there are no traces whatsoever. In fact, Nijinski was trained as a young ballet student how to write down choreographies for dance using the Stephanov notation system. In the summer of 1914, upon the outbreak of WWI, Nijinsky, along with his wife and child, were held on house arrest in Hungary because military officials had received a “tip” concerning some notation that Nijinsky was working on. They were convinced that this notation was some sort of military code.

Nijinsky, inspired by Baroque architecture he had seen earlier in his life, had been working on his own system of dance notation. Experts in music and mathematics were called in and Nijinsky spent several days explaining his system to them before they were convinced that it was indeed dance notation he was working on and not a military plan in code.

A year ago, I had the privilege of attending a workshop with dance scholars, writers, professional dancers, teachers, and enthusiasts gathered by the inimitable Catherine Turocy who brought Milicent Hodgsen to Seattle to explore Nijinsky’s dance notation. In the four days that we gathered we explored Nijinsky’s world through all the different kinds of dance with which he was familiar: Ukrainian folk dances, early twentieth century tango and jazz – oh, and ballet! These kinds of workshops are much recommended for the serendipitious moments that emerge from working in a historical period from many different angles and with creative, dedicated dancers, teachers, amateurs, choreographers, critics, and historians.