In this paper I will analyse the representation of the male dancing body seen in L’Après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) by Vaslav Nijinsky. In addressing this I will note the salience of the Ballets Russes, how it led to the revolution of gendered roles in ballet and the emergence of Nijinsky and thusly, Afternoon of a Faun. I will address the markers that make performance gendered traditionally and in relation to Afternoon of a Faun and why the performance unsettles normative understanding of masculinity. As no video recording exists of Nijinsky I will use the Joffrey Ballet’s 1980 reconstruction starring Rudolf Nureyev as the faun for the visual stimulus for this paper.
The Ballet Russes was an immensely influential ballet company based in Paris that existed from 1909 to 1929. The company was founded by Sergei Diaghilev and boasted avant-garde collaborations, that were sensationally received. Diaghilev reintroduced western audience to prominent male leads and was criticised by dance historian Lynn Garafola that he “dethroned the ballerina in his desire to create works that celebrated the masculine body” (Burt 61). This is a valid view as Diaghilev and Nijinsky were in a relationship that blurred the lines of professionalism and personal (Nicholls 2018). From 1909 to 1914 The Ballet Russes experienced a golden era of male dominated performance choregraphed by Michel Fokine and starring Nijinsky, creating the concept of neo-classical ballet (Benthaus 2018).
Classical ballet is noted with a clear vocabulary of gender movement (Benthaus 2018). Male performance is represented though notable endurance in terms of spins and aerial movement. Females portray great feats of flexibility and unparalleled elegance and will always be the focal point of the performance. In classical performances the relationship between bodies and their gendered movement is clearly noted in the pas de deux, which sees the masculine frame the feminine, supporting the feminine and creating a pedestal for the ballerina to hold the focus of the audience. It is directly against these standards that Nijinsky developed the choreography for the performance of Afternoon of a Faun. These productions noted an evolution of movement towards more jarring, erratic movement with Fokine stating that there is in fact “no dance” in Afternoon of a Faun (Nicholls 2018). These methods of dance unsettled the classically biased audiences of the west.
Under the wing of Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky rose to prominence as the most renowned dancer of the twentieth century, if not the most talented. Nijinksy not only choreographed Afternoon of a Faun but performed the lead role of faun himself. Afternoon of a Faun portrays the lustful interactions of faun who happens upon a group of nymphs. Though only twelve minutes in length, Afternoon of a Faun departs from classical gendered movement. It flattens the movement into a two-dimensional visage that is representative of Ancient Greek art. Space between bodies is partitioned and movement is in sequence rather than synchronicity, clearly seen during the main interaction between the faun and the main nymph. It is here that a clear deviance from classical norms is experienced with the male role dominating the space and action. So too do we see masculinity extended to a sexual, bestial eroticism in the faun’s pursuit of the nymphs and dominance over them. In Afternoon of a Faun’s conclusion we see a final masturbatory interaction between the faun and an element of costume. This depiction of masculine self-gratification resonates of liberation and artistic freedom but also of absolute domination of the stage and the audience, which is forced to bear witness.
In Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun we see a cumulation of artistic ideology that through pure anarchy created a new mentality of masculine representation in ballet. The development of the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s romance and the prodigy that Nijinsky represented, all came together to redefine how the masculine is perceived. It is through sheer talent and conviction of artistic ideology that progressive values were transferred through artistic mediums. It is no wonder that in the original performance that Afternoon of a Faun was received with both applause and booing, as the final act forced progressive ideology upon a classically biased public. It is through Afternoon of a Faun that normative gender perceptions are disrupted, but that disruption quickly turns to appreciation in face of the talent.
Benthaus, Elena. “Reading Dancing.” The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 9th October 2018.
Burt, Ramsay, The Male Dancer. Routledge, 2007
Nicholls, Mark. “Private Passions and Company Priority: the Ballets Russes and the love and work story of Sergei Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinksy.” The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 10th October 2018.