On one of the first warm days of late March, Fifth Avenue pedestrian traffic was teeming outside the Guggenheim, ubiquitous Mister Softee truck idling at the curb. Down the avenue, people posed for photos on the steps outside the Met and Central Park resembled the Seurat painting that inspired “Sunday in the Park with George,” while a crowd of some two hundred seventy dance lovers found their way down a ramp to the Guggenheim’s circular theater to sit in the dark for one of two sold out presentations on Bronislava Nijinska’s ballet from 1923, “Les Noces,” presented by Works & Process.
Seated at stage right were Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West; Lynn Garafola, author of the recent biography, La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern; and Linda Murray, curator for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of New York Public Library, who would moderate a discussion. Ballet West is reviving “Les Noces” in Salt Lake City, April 14-22, to celebrate the work’s one hundredth anniversary. Sklute interrupted a month long rehearsal process to bring to NYC six company dancers who’d had only 10 days so far to learn their roles. “Les Noces,” a 25-minute work set to Igor Stravinsky’s score and libretto, was made for a cast of 40 dancers, a 40-member live chorus, four grand pianos, and a large percussion section. If you’re near SLC, this show is not to be missed. Those of us in NYC must settle for a brief preview. No, “settle” is not the right term—this Works & Process event is better described as a premium upgrade: a fascinating insider look at how the historic work is performed, what it means in the context of its time, and why Nijinska is to be celebrated. Together, Sklute and Garafola walked us through the ballet-in-four-scenes aided by videos, projected images, and live demonstrations by the dancers.
The ballet “offers a woman’s point of view,” said Garafola, “the bride is a victim of society,” a perspective not typical for ballet of that period. “Les Noces” depicts a Russian village wedding, showing the preparations of the bride and her friends who braid her very long hair, the celebrating bridegroom and his friends, the bride leaving her parental home, and ultimately the wedding feast. But it’s not a happy occasion. It’s an arranged marriage and the bride is expected to move in with the groom’s family where she will fall under her mother-in-law’s direction. She’s worried; her mother bemoans her loss; yes, the bridegroom celebrates, but with perhaps more bravado than he honestly feels about his new responsibility and loss of freedom. Even the wedding feast guests are pensive about who will be next to submit to this weighty ritual. The keening of Stravinsky’s complex score heightens the trepidation.
Sklute has a personal history with “Les Noces,” having been cast as the groom for an Oakland Ballet production early in his dancing career, and then as part of the male ensemble for The Joffrey Ballet. Now as director, he’s primed for his own production. He introduces three Ballet West women onstage to demonstrate a section of intricate pointe work that gives the ballet a unique look. Nijinska has put the dancers en pointe in parallel, which is unusual, alternating with a turned out step that echoes the action of braiding the bride’s hair. Later, Sklute stands on stage to count aloud—a great way for the audience to understand what a tricky sequence it is—as the three men perform “eagle” jumps in a circle. This move is what gives the groom’s celebration a triumphant tone.
The unique look of “Les Noces” was a departure from traditional Russian imperial dance: a spare stage, muted colors in the notably plain costumes, and the stylized movement suggestive of cubism. The one prop is the bride’s exaggeratedly long (15 ft) fake braids. While Nijinska has been largely overshadowed by her older brother, Vaslav Nijinsky, her work introduced a notable turning in historic ballet lineage. Sklute and Garafola place her as a bridge to the neo-classicism of George Balanchine. “Her work looks abstract,” said Garafola. “Though it has a series of actions, there isn’t a plot. It shows the imprint of a modern approach.”
The ballet has a striking visual effect, making it a great match for the Guggenheim location, which has in its collection the work of “Les Noces” designer, Natalia Goncharova. The Works & Process panel called attention to Nijinska’s arrangement of dancers on the stage in a pleasing composition of varying levels—low, medium, and high. She also used a sculptural motif to bookend “Les Noces”: a dynamic pyramid forms when a dancer crouches on the floor and the others drape themselves one at a time, stacking their heads. The pyramid appears in the opening section with the bride perched at the very top, her braids streaming alongside, and again at the closing wedding feast, as a new pair of young villagers solemnly steps to the top to await their expected turn.
In a brief conversation after the show, executive director Duke Dang responded to my question about why Works & Process would bring dancers from Utah all the way to NYC for a one day event. “While we can’t bring the whole production out, we did try to bring a little of it so we can all learn,” he said. “Nijinska isn’t represented as much as she should be.” All W&P events are recorded and entered into the archives housed at New York Library for the Performing Arts—and, when possible, posted on the W&P YouTube channel. About the organization’s mission, he said, “A lot of people believe that the work speaks for itself. We believe that actually the process is the most interesting part. If you ask any artist, they spend the bulk of their time and energy creating, rehearsing, trying new ideas that work—sometimes they don’t work. We try to reveal that creative process.”