Scandalizes Parisian Audiences

Vaslav Nijinsky’s first work of choreography, with its use of impressionistic music, decor, and movement, altered forever the course of ballet.

Summary of Event

Vaslav Nijinsky, who almost from the outset of his ballet career had surpassed standards and expectations for dancers, had long rebelled against academic classicism and romanticism. Trained at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, he drew attention for his spectacular jumps, in which he appeared to pause at the apex before landing with exquisite grace and power. He partnered Anna Pavlova briefly in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Ballets Russes but his chief partner was Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, with whom he danced in such outstanding works as Le Pavillon d’Armide (1909), L’Oiseau de feu (1910; The Firebird), Les Sylphides (1909), Schéhérazade (1910), Le Spectre de la rose (1911), and Petrushka (1911), all innovatively choreographed by Michel Fokine. Après-midi d’un faune, L’ (ballet)[Après midi dun faune]
Ballet;L’Après-midi d’un faune [Après midi dun faune]
[kw]L’Après-midi d’un faune Scandalizes Parisian Audiences (May 29, 1912)[LAprès midi dun faune Scandalizes Parisian Audiences (May 29, 1912)]
[kw]Parisian Audiences, L’Après-midi d’un faune Scandalizes (May 29, 1912)
Après-midi d’un faune, L’ (ballet)[Après midi dun faune]
Ballet;L’Après-midi d’un faune [Après midi dun faune]
[g]France;May 29, 1912: L’Après-midi d’un faune Scandalizes Parisian Audiences[03100]
[c]Dance;May 29, 1912: L’Après-midi d’un faune Scandalizes Parisian Audiences[03100]
[c]Music;May 29, 1912: L’Après-midi d’un faune Scandalizes Parisian Audiences[03100]
Nijinsky, Vaslav
Diaghilev, Sergei
Bakst, Léon
Debussy, Claude
Fokine, Michel

Controversy followed Nijinsky throughout his career. Dismissed from the Mariinsky Theatre in 1911 for appearing in Giselle in trunk hose and short jerkin (without regulation trunks), he lived and worked in an atmosphere of hysteria, glamor, and intrigue. Dissatisfied with old conventions and even with Fokine’s revolutionary unification of music, painting, and dance, Nijinsky accepted the invitation of his mentor and lover, Diaghilev, to invent his own choreography after the triumphant 1911 Ballets Russes season.

Nijinsky devised a style of walking on stage in which his torso was turned full on to the audience and his head, arms, and legs were in profile. This deliberate dehumanization (following upon Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s system of eurythmics) made for a new mode of composition in which dance could be performed in opposition to music. In Paris, with the help of a pianist and dancer Alexandre Gavrilov (his occasional stand-in), Nijinsky tried out his first choreography. All available evidence indicates that Nijinsky invented his choreography before he had even found the musical background for it. Diaghilev, who was seeking an alternative to Fokine’s choreography, was delighted and suggested the use of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894), which was inspired by (but not a synthesis of) Stéphane Mallarmé’s Mallarmé, Stéphane symbolic eclogue L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876; The Afternoon of a Faun, 1956). Although it is true that Debussy’s impressionistic music, with its ravishing suggestions of revitalized sensations, virtuosic instrumental character, subtle motives, and supple compositional structure, stirred Nijinsky’s imagination, the fact remains that it was Nijinsky who capitalized on the musical atmosphere to express his own—not Mallarmé’s or Debussy’s—fantasy of sexual discovery and gratification.

Mallarmé’s poem was originally a recitation for the great actor Benoît Coquelin; the poem expresses the reveries and frustration of a faun rejected by beauty (symbolized by nymphs). Debussy borrowed Mallarmé’s poetic method, evoking its themes through allusion rather than through direct statement. Nijinsky interpreted the music and narrative sexually (he never read the poem), and the entire ballet became a daring depiction of something previously unmentionable in the theater, let alone portrayed sensually in dance.

Nijinsky’s version of L’Après-midi d’un faune was a choreographic tableau in one act influenced by Nijinsky’s knowledge of Greek and Egyptian vases and stone reliefs. It required more than one hundred rehearsals, although it was barely ten minutes long, and Nijinsky spent ninety of those sessions teaching his dancers (including his sister, Bronia) a new system of walking backward or forward in profile, on the heel, with slightly bended knees. The rehearsals cut into Fokine’s own rehearsals for three different ballets, and the difficult choreography upset dancer Ida Rubinstein, who turned down Nijinsky’s invitation to perform the part of the ballet’s principal nymph (although one of her motives was surely her desire not to ruin her friendship with Fokine, her teacher and an archenemy of Nijinsky).

In telling the simple story of a boy-faun disturbed from his lazy reveries on a hot afternoon, Nijinsky choreographed explicit sexual images. After frightening away the seven nymphs, including the boldest one, who had engaged in some teasing byplay with him, the faun picked up the principal nymph’s fallen scarf, caressed it tenderly, and then thrust his body into it as if taking possession of the nymph and orgasmically relieving his sexual frustration. Every element of the production worked—from Léon Bakst’s extraordinary speckled, striped decor, lush with russets, greens, and grays, to the nymphs’ costumes and Nijinsky’s own dancing as the half-animal, half-human creature.

Nijinsky made his ballet represent the initial stirrings of sexual and emotional instinct and, consequently, made the work a metaphor for the first impulses of creation. He himself at the time was feeling the first awakenings of his own creativity, for now he was not merely an obedient servant of Fokine but a choreographer in his own right, wholly responsive to the possibilities of his art.

The audience sat motionless throughout the work—even through Nijinsky’s suggestion of masturbation at the end—but as the curtain fell, a storm of both applause and disapproval broke out. Bravos rang out amid catcalls and whistles. Fights erupted in the audience. Diaghilev was visibly upset and so was Nijinsky, but as supporters shouted for an encore, Diaghilev ordered a reprise of the complete ballet, as if to appease Nijinsky and convince him that his work had earned more applause than rejection.


The immediate impact of the ballet was a scandal. Instead of running his regular dance critic’s review, Gaston Calmette, Calmette, Gaston the powerful editor of Le Figaro, printed his own attack in a front-page editorial on May 30, 1912, condemning Nijinsky for his depiction of an “incontinent” faun of “eroticbestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness.” Nijinsky’s choreography, it was claimed, was an affront to public morality. There was a political motive for Calmette’s action; in attacking the Ballets Russes, he was really targeting the Franco-Russian alliance, to which he was vehemently opposed. A rumor spread that the prefect of police would stop the next performance of the ballet, and it seemed the whole city of Paris was in an uproar.

Diaghilev prevailed on Nijinsky to change the ballet’s last movement for at least the next few performances. The renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin, Rodin, Auguste a septuagenarian, wrote an article that appeared on the editorial page of the newspaper Le Matin the day after Calmette’s furious denunciation; Rodin praised Nijinsky’s ability to use his body as an expression of his mind. Rodin was particularly impressed by Nijinsky’s attitudes—his bendings, stoopings, and crouchings, all done with nervous angularity and yet possessing the beauty of antique frescoes and statues. This sort of dancing—developing the freedom of instinct expressed earlier by Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan—was a “perfect personification of the ideals of the beauty of the old Greeks,” Rodin stated.

Calmette immediately attacked Rodin as a scandalous exploiter of public funds, prompting eminent figures from the French artistic, literary, and political worlds to begin a campaign of support for Rodin. Many Parisians tried to attend a performance of Nijinsky’s ballet to judge for themselves who was right, the Faunists or the anti-Faunists. The controversy thus created both a box-office bonanza and international notoriety for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The time and attention spent on Nijinsky infuriated Fokine, whose ballet Daphnis et Chloë (1912) was the last of the season and suffered in comparison with Nijinsky’s. Fokine first accused Nijinsky of stealing his choreography and then choreographed a mocking travesty of Nijinsky in Daphnis et Chloë. He also resigned from the Ballets Russes and joined the rival Mariinsky Theatre as first ballet master.

Nijinsky’s choreography, however, transcended the politics of the dance world. To be sure, the Greek and Egyptian background influences were not unprecedented; Fokine, for example, had used Greek and Egyptian angularity since Eunice (1907). Nijinsky’s choreography, however, was radically different for several reasons. It made heavy walking a form of dance, with the walking not done strictly to the music and sometimes opposed to it. Nijinsky’s new technique meant that the dancer’s feet no longer turned out, as in the classical positions. Now the positions were reversed, and deliberately crude movements (once thought to be ugly and primitive) were made perfectly justifiable. The motion of dancers in straight lines and angles, in opposition to spirals and serpentine undulations, showed that any line or angle could be good in its proper place. Ballets had long had irrelevant decorations for a repertoire of steps, and Nijinsky, rebelling against beauty and grace for their own sake, treated dance as an absolute medium. Unlike Marius Petipa’s ballets, in which settings explained the dancing, Nijinsky’s ballet made setting, costuming, lighting, music, and choreography one complete whole—a total art form in which all the arts combined inseparably.

The choreography of L’Après-midi d’un faune led to the composite sport movement of Nijinsky’s next work, Jeux (1913), a modern-dress ballet about flirting tennis players, and then, climactically, to Le Sacre du printemps (1913; The Rite of Spring), Rite of Spring, The (ballet) in which powerful, grotesque movements conveyed a startling interpretation of a Russian folk myth about renewal and sacrifice.

Nijinsky was a precursor of such choreographers as Jerome Robbins, Roland Petit, and Maurice Béjart. Since its debut, L’Après-midi d’un faune has been danced by numerous virtuoso performers, including Léonide Massine, Serge Lifar, David Lichine, Igor Youskevitch, Leon Danielian, and Jean Babilée. It even inspired a Jerome Robbins version, first presented by the New York City Ballet on May 14, 1953, as a stripped down but fascinatingly suggestive pas de deux, set in a dance studio, depicting nascent love competing with narcissism. Après-midi d’un faune, L’ (ballet)[Après midi dun faune]
Ballet;L’Après-midi d’un faune [Après midi dun faune]

Further Reading

  • Balanchine, George, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Presents the stories of more than four hundred ballets along with Balanchine’s personal thoughts on choreography, careers in ballet, ballet for children, and a brief history of ballet. Includes a chronology of outstanding dance events from 1469 to 1976. Descriptions include commentary by critics, choreographers, and composers. Features photographs, illustrated glossary, and notes.
  • Buckle, Richard. Nijinsky. 1970. Reprint. London: Orion, 1998. Authoritative biography resulting from many years of painstaking research (including access to Nijinsky’s diary and conversations with people who knew and worked with him). Provides detailed and vivid descriptions of the significant ballets. Includes twenty-two line drawings and forty-eight pages of half-tone illustrations.
  • Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. A selection of essays and reviews by one of the most influential scholars of the history of dance. Covers the transformation of dance, especially ballet, since the early twentieth century. Includes many photographs.
  • _______, ed. The Ballets Russes and Its World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Collection of fourteen essays on the history and importance of the Ballets Russes by dance and music scholars and critics. Includes illustrations and bibliography.
  • Kirstein, Lincoln. Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet. New York: Praeger, 1970. Surveys choreography, gesture, mime, music, costume, and decor as they developed in the West. Interprets fifty seminal ballets and looks at social, historical, and philosophical influences on dance. Includes more than four hundred illustrations.
  • Nijinska, Bronislava. Nijinska: Early Memoirs. Edited and translated by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson. 1981. Reprint. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992. Nijinsky’s sister provides interesting reminiscences of the Imperial Russian Ballet and Diaghilev’s seasons in Western Europe before 1914. Offers a picture of Nijinsky’s parents and reveals Nijinsky’s early life. Includes sixty-four pages of photographs.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Astounds Paris

Fokine’s Les Sylphides Introduces Abstract Ballet

The Firebird Premieres in Paris

The Rite of Spring Stuns Audiences

Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet