Death by Dancing in Nijinsky’s Rite


In this essay I discuss my reconstruction with Kenneth Archer of the 1913 Rite of Spring, which we premiered with the Joffrey Ballet in the US in 1987 and which we have staged with more than a dozen companies worldwide. In relation to photographs and performance extracts on video I raise the following issues about Nijinsky’s dance: the ethics of sacrifice in the ballet, isolation and collective action as organizing principles of the body and choreography, what Nijinsky did in The Rite, and why he called it “new dance”.
Our culture regularly sends its young to die in brutal battle. Jean Cocteau and other contemporaries of Nijinsky claimed Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite) prefigured the sacrifice of their generation in what they called “The Great War.” What are the ethics of sacrifice revealed in the ballet? What was Nijinsky’s role in shaping the ethics demonstrated on stage? What is the nature of responsibility in The Rite?
Individuality and collective action are in constant tension in this ballet. Nijinsky pointed the way to modern dance with his redefinitions of the body, of stage space, and of the very subject of dance. He pointed further to postmodernism by making every dancer a soloist in The Rite. It is a ballet about massed energy, but isolation is as fundamental to the choreography as communal effects: movement of one part of the body while the rest is static; movement of one group while all others remain still; deepening degrees of separation for the Chosen One as the sacrificial solo approaches. I will discuss choreographic methods used by Nijinsky to achieve these effects.

But the focus will be on the significance for audiences then and now of Nijinsky’s methods. The Chosen One’s solo is an ordeal of exhaustion, not physical attack. If there is the brutality in The Rite, what is it? Does the ballet tell us something about Nijinsky’s own life as an artist?
The purpose of our reconstruction was to turn the legend of this ballet back into an artifact. The essay does not focus on choreographic proof of the reconstruction, about which Archer and I have widely published. Instead it considers the resulting artifact and asks what it means.