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#Throwback Thursday: Afternoon of a Faun

This week's #ThrowbackThursday features Nijinsky's controversial The Afternoon of a Faun.

Ballets Russes 1912 Season poster featuring 'Afternoon of a Faun', by Leon Bakst

The Afternoon of a Faun, or L'Apres-midi d'un faune, was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Previously the choreographer for the Ballets Russes had been Mikhail Fokine, who had already been well established at the Imperial Ballet before several of the artists there joined Diaghilev's company, drawing Fokine with them. Diaghilev was looking for something different from Fokine's usual style, and decided to allow his principal dancer and favourite, Vaslav Nijinsky, to contribute a piece for the company.

Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky's choreographic debut was to take place during the company's Paris season. The ballet was inspired by Stephane Mallarme's poem L'Apres-midi d'un faune, which had also inspired the music Nijinsky used - Claude Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. Diaghilev and Nijinsky, with the help of the company's designer Leon Bakst, were also inspired by the artwork found on the Greek vases and Egyptian and Assyrian frescoes they saw at the Lourve Museum. Bakst brought to the project ideas he had already developed with Vsevolod Meyerhold - stylised postures, narrow staging, pausing to emphasize effect, and the concept of two dimensionality.

An example of Greek vase painting: Menelaus falls under Helen's spell again, Campana Collection, Lourve Museum, acquired 1861

The storyline was deliberately simple, merely following a faun in his encounter with several nymphs. The ballet had a deliberately archaic style, and Bakst's original staging deliberately presented it as a tableau from an ancient Greek vase painting (on which the subject of a faun pursuing a nymph was a common theme). To further this, the ballet was danced in bare feet, and the choreography was often presented in bas relief, as in ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art.

Nijinsky as the Faun

Nijinsky was helped in his choreography by his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, then a senior dancer with the Imperial Ballet who later became a noted choreographer in her own right. However, he had difficulty expressing what he wanted the dancers to do, frustrated by what he perceived as their limitations. An exceptional dancer, Nijinsky expected the other dancers to be able to perform to his level, but his limits as a teacher prevented that from happening. The ballet was first shown to Diaghilev in secret in 1911, due to Diaghilev fear of offending Fokine. He feared that Fokine would walk out if he knew, and the company was relying on Fokine for ballets for their new season. Indeed, when Fokine found out, he immediately decided to resign.

Nijinsky as the Faun

After 90 - yes, 90 - rehearsals, in which the dancers struggled to adapt to the strange new forms required of them, the ballet was presented to its first audience at a dress rehearsal in Paris on May 28, 1912. The dancers were by this point doubting Nijinsky's skills, and were sure the ballet was doomed to failure. When the rehearsal finished, there was an ominous silence. The next night, May 29, the ballet received its official premiere. Due to the overtly erotic nature of the ballet and its ending, there was an extremely mixed reaction. To start with, there was slight applause, but mostly booing. After a second performance, the reaction had improved slightly; in the audience, famed French sculptor Auguste Rodin stood up to cheer.

Costume design for a Nymph by Leon Bakst

Nijinksy's performance as the Faun received generally favourable accolades. However, his choreographic skills were more up for debate. Some praised the ballet as evidence of a new, modern direction for art and for ballet (clearly, Rodin agreed). Others denounced it, calling it 'crude' and 'indecent', saying that the ballet 'was greeted with the booing it deserved' (Gatson Clamette, Le Figaro). Meanwhile, the painter Odilon Redon, a friend of the original poet, claimed that Mallarme would have approved. Things escalated quickly. Le Figaro was accused of anti-Russian feeling. Politicians were brought into the fray. The police attended the second night of the performance run, but did not act, citing public support. The ending may have been temporarily amended to prevent indecency charges. However, in true 'any publicity is good publicity' fashion, the show's notoriety meant everyone who was anyone in Paris simply had to see it. All performances were sold out.

Nijinsky as the Faun with a Nymph, possibly Nelidova

Fokine accused Nijinsky of stealing choreography from him, and the company split, with some dancers supporting Nijinsky and some Fokine. Fokine left the company in very bad feeling. But Nijinsky seemed to have overcome the French controversy. Afternoon of a Faun was left off the London programme to let the talk die down a little, but featured prominently in the German tour. On December 11, at the New Royal Opera House in Berlin, Afternoon of a Faun was shown before an audience which included the Kaiser (Wilhelm II) and the King of Portugal (the deposed Manuel II). It was given an encore and received enthusiastic applause; Diaghilev reported it a 'huge success'. Others felt that it had fallen a little flat, but nevertheless, the German tour was a success. In Vienna, both Afternoon of a Faun and Petrushka were coolly received, but that changed in London; both were a great success. A small number hissed at Faun, but most were approving.

Nijinsky in the controversial final pose of the ballet

A great deal of the ballet's success may be attributed to Nijinsky starring as the lead role. The ballet was only in the company's repertoire for a few years, and once Nijinsky left the company, it ceased to be performed. It was assumed lost until the late 1980s, when dance notation specialists Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke reconstructed the ballet from Nijinsky's notebooks. It is performed in conjunction with Nijinsky's other works (the even more controversial Le Sacre Printemps - The Rite of Spring - and Jeux, both 1913) and was influential in the new ballet Nijinsky, which includes pieces of his most famous roles. Interestingly enough, the band Queen's music video for I Want to Break Free bursts into a version of the ballet starring Freddie Mercury and dancers from the Royal Ballet. Again, it was controversial in the US.

Above: Freddie Mercury with a dancer of the Royal Ballet, 'I Want to Break Free'; Below: Nijinsky as the Faun, by George Barbier, 1913

Here is Rudolf Nureyev in Afternoon of a Faun, date unknown:

Queen's version is shown briefly in their music video below (I can't find the full version unfortunately, but there's certainly nothing wrong about a little bit of Queen!):

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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