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Match Point

In 1913, a few weeks before the premiere of his revolutionary “Rite of Spring,” Nijinsky created another, smaller ballet for the Ballets Russes. “Jeux,” to music by Debussy, depicted a dalliance between three young tennis players. The subject was modern and slightly naughty, with the suggestion of both heterosexual and same-sex attraction between the two girls.

Performance

“Jeux” and “A Child’s Tale” by Christopher Williams

Place

Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, NY, October 12, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

“Jeux” by Christopher Williams. Photograph by Maria Baranova

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Nijinsky had gotten the idea from his lover Serge Diaghilev, who, he said, dreamed of a menage-a-trois with two men. By the time the idea had become a ballet, though, it had been cleaned up, made slightly more respectable. Now the choreographer Christopher Williams has added “Jeux” to a growing list of ballets from the Ballets Russes era that he has reinterpreted through a queer lens, a list that already included “Les Sylphides” and “Afternoon of a Faun.” 

Williams offered his new “Jeux” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center alongside another Ballets Russes-inspired work, “A Child’s Tale,” loosely drawn from Léonide Massine’s 1917 Contes Russes. It is set to three short compositions by the Russian composer—and follower of Rimsky Korsakov—Anatoly Lyadov. 

“Jeux” by Christopher Williams. Photograph by Maria Baranova

Williams’ “Jeux” restores Diaghilev’s all-male fantasy, and adds a second scenario, for three women. The men go first. In tennis whites (shorts for two of the men and a skirt for the third), they frolic and cavort, or hold hands in a circle like the ecstatic figures in Matisse’s blissful painting “The Dance.” They also suffer jealousy and inflict abuse, ganging up on each other, pushing the odd one out to the ground. The steps are rounded, balletic but turned in, with an extra curve in the shoulders and tilt in the head. The dancers’ expressions are soft, heads slightly tilted. At times, especially when they recline on the floor, there is a faun-like quality to their poses.

Then, after the sound of an airplane passing by (an idea that was considered but discarded by Nijinsky), Williams starts the dance over again. Three women, two in skirts and the third wearing shorts—the stylish costumes are by Reid & Harriet Design and Andrew Jordan– repeat many of the same steps, as the men, now in black, lurk in the background. One of the women, Christina Axelson, is especially lovely. With her pixie haircut, gentle musicality, and smiling demeanor, she adds a layer of warmth to the proceedings. 

“Jeux” by Christopher Williams. Photograph by Maria Baranova

Williams incorporates some imagery from Nijinsky’s original ballet, like a pyramidal formation for the three dancers and a curious rounding of the fingers, both captured in original photographs. These, along with Nijinksy’s notations in the score and some sketches, were also the basis of a 1987 reconstruction of the ballet by Millicent Hodson. But no-one really knows what Nijinsky’s ballet looked like. And though Williams’ reinterpretation contains some intriguing ideas and a lovely, lilting movement quality, the piece quickly plateaus, as if trapped in the orchestral lushness of Debussy’s score. It is hampered by an overly narrow range of movements, and an excessive repetition of certain motifs. It feels stuck in an idea.

“A Child's Tale” by Christopher Williams. Photograph by Maria Baranova

Much better is the second work on the program, “A Child’s Tale,” which, Williams writes in the program, was partly inspired by his Ukrainian grandmother’s bedtime stories about the Slavic ogress Baba Yaga and her hut, an abode that runs around the forest on a pair of chicken legs. The hut, designed by Monkey Boys Productions, is a theatrical wonder.

The dance is set to music by Lyadov that is rich in folk melodies (the score includes “Baba Yaga, Eight Russian Folksongs,” and “Kikimora”) and tells a tale in the old Slavic manner, populated by simple townfolk, house spirits, goblins, and creatures of the forest. This is ripe territory for Williams, who in the past has explored the lives of the Christian martyrs, pagan mythology, and magic. Here, his simple, limpid dance vocabulary suits the folk theme. The style could be called neo-naïf. The dancers’ tilted heads, turned-in poses and innocent expressions are reminiscent of icons and folk art. The costumes—colorful, Ukrainian-inspired—are highly evocative. Three crones wear beaked noses; a foundling boy is covered in feathers and moss; the house spirit, or Kikimora, is garbed in blacks and grays, with long prosthetic fingers and a rake stuck in her hair.  

“A Child's Tale” by Christopher Williams. Photograph by Maria Baranova

Thus attired, the dancers enact little dramas. Kikimora (Caitlin Scranton) lurks in the background, vulnerable and alone, angel of death but also protective spirit. When the foundling boy (a wonderfully creature-like Mac Twining) is attacked with spears, Kikimora saves him, raising his lifeless chest from the ground until he breathes new life. There is a happy dance with clapping, and a spooky, slow one for Kikimora, in which the spirit silently opens her mouth and stretches her long limbs into space as the townfolk pray for protection. 

It’s a rich and suggestive piece of neo-folk art that draws from ancestral memories and the magical world of the spirits. And unlike “Jeux,” which feels like a worthy idea in search of inspiration, Williams’ “A Child’s Tale” is frighteningly alive, and of the moment.  

Marina Harss


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