Adventures in Choreographic Notation and the Tale of Two Ballet Rebels or Nijinsky/Nijinska

This is a guest post by Paola Maria Rodriguez, a CUNY/Morgan Summer 2023 Fellow, PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Dance, and particularly the form of dance labeled “classical ballet,” is an art form of frustrating dichotomies. On the one hand, the casings or trappings of ballet– the pointe shoes and tutus of the ballerina, the tights of the male dancers, the strict code of proscribed steps– serve as signifiers of an art form considered too niche or set in its ways to ever truly speak, freely and meaningfully, to an audience. On the other hand, ballet holds within itself the seeds of a truly transcendent human experience, a representational language capable of suspending temporal and spatial barriers, speaking to the very origins of humanity’s first wish to move in rhythm to music, the original total “Gesamtkunstwerk.” It is to the credit of Serge Diaghilev, perhaps the greatest ballet impresario to have ever lived, that he understood this. He aided, developed, and single-handedly masterminded one of the most significant events in Western dance history when he first presented his season of Russian ballet and opera before the Parisian public in 1909. The success and popularity of the ballets presented led to Diaghilev’s decision to concentrate on ballet and to the founding of the Ballets Russes, which would present seasons in Paris until his death in 1929. Ballet became a valid artistic expression in the public eye. Diaghilev attracted prestigious collaborations and set ballets to the music of artists such as Ravel and Debussy, and discovered the young Igor Stravinsky. Picasso, Benois, and Bakst created stage designs unlike any seen before. Diaghilev did away with the traditional tutus and tights, proving that ballet could meet the other artistic mediums head-on, surpassing them in expressive and theatrical terms. This revolution was reflected in the ballet choreographers active under the aegis of the Ballets Russes: Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Leonide Massine. Diaghilev’s featured choreographers forever changed ballet as an art form, pushing the limits of ballet itself. As Fokine declared in his 1914 credo, published in a letter to the London Times, ballet could, and needed, to adapt to any time or place. Its plasticity, he thought, should embody every nuance of the human condition and express all the colors of human emotion through the specific vocabulary of ballet.

In the summer of 2023, I was fortunate to accept the CUNY/Morgan Summer Fellowship to assist Dr. Robinson McClellan with research and preparations for the upcoming summer 2024 exhibition focused on the creative conditions and collaborations of the Ballets Russes, Crafting the Ballets Russes: Music, Dance, Design—The Robert Owen Lehman Collection. The exhibition takes as its focal point the scores found in the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, held on deposit at the Morgan Library & Museum, to present a comprehensive view of the collaborative processes and artistic ideals behind the creation of the ballets produced during the Diaghilev Paris Ballets Russes seasons. As a longtime ballet student and amateur dance historian, I was delighted to be able to research at the Morgan a subject which has long been one of my areas of study, alongside my research in the fields of medieval and early modern Italian literature. I was able to view rare autograph music manuscripts from the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, such as Ravel’s Bolero autograph manuscript, dedicated to the dancer Ida Rubinstein. I saw the composing scores of Debussy’s L’apres midi d’un faune and Stravinsky’s Firebird , as well as the orchestral score and performing parts for Firebird , held in the Morgan’s own collection (which contain amusing cartoons and scribbles done in moments, perhaps, of boredom by the musicians), as well as the rehearsal score of the Ballets Russes’ version of Swan Lake from Diaghilev’s personal library. I was also able to view an incredible collection of ballet programs from Comoedia Illustré in the Morgan’s Mary Flagler Cary Collection, featuring drawings from the set designers, articles on the ballet dancers, and photographs from the Paris seasons.

While viewing these scores and the programs, I was struck at the incredibly organic relationship between the music, the dance, and the visual designs in the creation and rehearsal process of these ballet productions. The scores, often notated with stage instructions or with the theatrical actions taking place onstage, show clearly that the musicians were in sync with the visual component of the ballet. In the programs, I saw a cohesive idea being formed between the musical material and the choreography and set design being created. In Petrushka , the atmosphere of the Russian Maslennitsa, or Shrovetide, is created in tandem by Stravinsky’s music, inspired and based on Russian folk and street music with brassy accents and jumpy arpeggios, the costumes of Alexandre Benois, featuring Petrushka as a sad clown in the mold of Pierrot, and by the theatrical choreography of Fokine, almost stilted in its caricature portrayal of the ballet’s archetypes. In fact, Benois and Stravinsky collaborated on the ballet’s story, and this intermingling of the visual and musical can be seen in a picture from the Comoedia Illustrè in which Nijinsky, dressed as Petrushka, is labeled as the interpreter, or actor, of the work’s title character (l’interprete), whilst Stravinsky is designated the work’s creator (l’auteur).

Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum, Cary Music Collection. 1911 Program for Ballets Russes

Image copy at State Museum of Theatre and Music, St. Petersburg. Karsavina stands in center with practice tutu, Fokine stands next to rehearsal piano

This intermingling is present in the rehearsal photograph for the Firebird , where the rehearsal pianist is positioned almost on the stage next to the dancers, including Tamara Karsavina in the principal role, showing how the music takes its cue and gives life to the choreographic action.

Fokine, the choreographer of both Petrushka and Firebird , stands next to the piano, closely inspecting the score, while Stravinsky, sitting in front of the piano, looks towards him. Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Bronislava Nijinska read music and were accomplished musicians in their own right. The Imperial Choreographic School in St. Petersburg required its students to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of reading music and playing an instrument, and most of the students were as skilled in music as they were in dance. George Balanchine, whose style and ballets I studied as a student in New York, famously declared that in his ballets the public could “see the music, hear the dance.” He, like Fokine and Nijinsky, was a former Imperial student, and would later become the Ballets Russes’ last choreographer before Diaghilev’s death in 1929. In my research at the Morgan, this intermingling of the visual and the musical was present in the topic I found most fascinating: Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreographic notation for the ballet L’apres-midi d’un faune and Bronislava Nijinska’s for Les Noces . I was able to study Nijinsky’s 1913 and 1915 choreographic scores of L’apres midi and his experimental notations in his diaries, as well as Nijinska’s choreographic notes and annotations in the musical score of Les noces , both housed in the Bronislava Nijinska Collection at the Library of Congress. Both Nijinsky and Nijinska had learned the Stepanov notation system at the Imperial School, and this experience had perhaps ignited in both a definite wish to experiment and seek out a way to notate their choreographies. Perhaps they sensed the limitations of the Stepanov notation for their own ballets, which had renounced the usual ballet patterns of trios, duets, and solos for a more fluid structure, and whose steps twisted and turned the usual ballet stance. Certainly, the steps of the Faune, twisted to the side in a flattened perspective, or the turned-in, often hunched stance of the peasants in Les Noces were nothing like the square, even stance of the classical technique exemplified by the ballets of Petipa. Much as a musical score indicates to musicians what a piece should sound like, a choreographic notation sets down the prescribed movements of a given ballet or dance work. However, unlike music scores, choreographic notation is rarely studied in the dance world and there remains a definite preference for learning choreography through imitation, with the instructor or choreographer performing and showing the steps to the dancers. As a ballet student, I was never introduced to choreographic notation, and this impulse in both Nijinsky and Nijinska seems to highlight the constant and conscious wish in the Diaghilev circle to create a unified vision where the visual was one and the same with the musical. Furthermore, both Nijinsky and Nijinska’s choreographic notational experiments seem to suggest a wish to push ballet technique in a more psychologically perceptive, more expressive direction, with dance movements that sought to reflect the emotional and individual psychological world of the characters.

The choreographic notations of Nijinsky and Nijinska were not a unified system; a cursory glance at the first notation by Nijinsky of the L’apres-midi in 1913 and of a leaf of choreographic notations by Nijinska for Le baiser de la fee (both held in the Nijinska Collection) suggest an adaptation of the Stepanov system wherein the body is separated in different horizontal markings that are then set on a grid of five lines that resembles a musical staff, reflecting the music’s beat. However, Nijinska’s choreographic notes for Les Noces ,as well as the notes found in Nijinsky’s diaries, show something entirely different; Nijinsky’s experimental notation, while still on a grid similar to a musical staff, is no longer based on the music’s timing, but seems to hinge on a movement structure of angles and circles, almost as if the choreographic images had become the music itself. Likewise, Nijinska’s notation for Les Noces abandons the musical grid altogether, using images that are almost like still drawings of each succeeding choreographic movement, often with the musical rhythm placed on the opposite page, in apposition.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Bronislava Nijinska collection
The notations for Les Noces show a drawing on one side and a single-line score for the beat on the other; the beat indicated by Nijinska often does not correspond to the original in Stravinsky’s score.

This structuring points out the curious difference between Stravinsky’s rhythms and Nijinska’s counterpoint-like use of them; in fact, the Russian text used by Stravinsky describe a wedding ceremony that was quite different in nature and expression, more flamboyant and colorful, than that displayed by Nijinska in her choreography and the designs and costumes carried out by Goncharova, which were spare and severe. Curiously, Nijinsky’s L’apres-midi was also called out by the composer, Debussy, as being completely opposed in vision and expression to the original musical composition. It almost seems as if, in their search for total union between the musical and the visual, Nijinsky and Nijinska had upended the usual power dynamic between choreography and music–in both of these works, the dancing seems to be leading the music, drawing from it ideas previously dormant or as yet unimagined within the music’s depth.

Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum, Cary Music Collection. 1912 Program for Ballets Russes
A picture from the Comoedia Illustrè , showing a moment from the ballet L’apres midi d’un faune . The nymphs on the frame, like the nymph in center, are posed in a way which recalls Greco-Roman vase paintings. The vase paintings are also evoked in the flat, two-dimensional positioning of the faun’s hands.

Viewing the choreographic notations and writings of Nijinsky and Nijinska, I mused also on their biographies. Both were restless souls, indefatigable searchers, and true students of dance; both fought against insurmountable odds and the reductive stereotypes of their time and place. Brother and sister, their careers dovetail; Nijinska often declared that her work was a continuation of her brother’s, that they were twin souls whose legacy is captured in their continual experiments to set down and describe the movements of their ballets. Nijinska was the sole female choreographer in the male-dominated world of the Ballets Russes, and Nijinsky was Diaghilev’s star dancer, who challenged and raised to public recognition and admiration the role of the male dancer. He became a choreographer, in his search for new and transcendent ways of moving, eventually succumbing to psychological infirmity. In them, I see the lesson and inheritance that the Diaghilev circle has left to every artist of questioning and searching, of seeking new ways of creating meaning. In L’apres-midi , Nijinsky’s choreography turned the usual ballet stance sideways, imitating the postures seen on Greek and Roman vases. He took Debussy’s rather nondescript faun into its origin, that of Greco-Roman mythology, expressing the literal meaning of the faun through an imaginative movement theory.

The innovation of suggesting an archetype through movement is also seen in Nijinska’s choreographic treatment of a Russian peasant wedding in Les Noces , which uses pointe shoes and jumps to enhance the earth-bound, turned-in stance of a primeval ritual. In both cases, the choreographic movements expand the interpretive possibilities of the music.

Ultimately, the artistic exchanges forged in Diaghilev’s company show the necessity of dialogue and conflict, of incongruencies and misunderstandings, in the artistic process. Rather than settling on one form or meaning, the ballets created under the aegis of the Ballets Russes show us that art needs change and exchange, constant movement and adaptation. The psychological world of the nymphs, fauns, and primeval peasants spring to life in the meeting between music and dance, where the movements breathe new life into the musical landscape and invite the public into its physical dialogue. Inquiring and proposing, never settling on a static stereotype or structure, the choreographic experiments of Nijinska and Nijinsky and the creators that gathered under Diaghilev’s leadership still disquiet us. Driving us to continually dig for meaning, refusing to settle into a proscribed axis or chain of movements, they burst out into our consciousness and shake us to life again.

Paola Maria Rodriguez
CUNY/Morgan Summer 2023 Fellow
PhD candidate in Comparative Literature
CUNY Graduate Center

Paola Maria Rodriguez is a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the department of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on medieval Italian lyric poetry, particularly the dolce stilnovo school and Dante, and the interaction of early Italian lyric poetry with the Occitan troubadour poetry and the German Minnelieder poets. She is also interested in the reception of Golden Age Latin poetry in the Middle Ages and her dissertation analyzes the possible influence of Virgil’s eclogues on Dante’s concept of language structure and use in the Divine Comedy. In her spare time, Paola is an enthusiastic ballet student and amateur dance historian, particularly interested in the Romantic ballerinas Marie Taglioni and Carlotta Grisi, the birth of Italian musical drama in the late Renaissance, and the development of Russian ballet. She has studied the Vaganova and Cecchetti ballet methods, as well as the Balanchine style and has taught Italian language and literature at Queens College CUNY. She hopes to continue learning and discovering areas of inquiry in both dance and philology.