by Joyelle McSweeney on Jun.23, 2012
I’ve been thinking lately about Vaslav Nijinsky, hearthrob of the Ballet Russes, a man’s whose charismatic force is seemingly undiminished nearly 100 years since he last danced on stage. Here is a dancer , the greatest dancer of the 20th century, of whom there is no film of him dancing. Yet there are myriad photographs, press accounts, memoirs, sketches, paintings, posters, sculptures, and many, many first person accounts. Nijinsky was an artist made for and of media—one classically trained ballerina reported in tears that she fled from the rehearsal hall when Nijinsky insisted that she dance not to the music, but through the music. This sense of artist as permeated by and animated by Art, of Art moving through the artist and the artist moving through Art, distinguished Nijinsky and made him the medium with which Modernity crashed into and through the ballet, remaking it. He was also the medium through whose body the ballet, fairly benighted in the West at the turn of the last century, crashed into Modernity.
So how to we speak of ‘sincerity’ with an artist like Nijinsky? We could speak of genius, many do, that’s the gold reserve which shores up the currency of sincerity. But I have another notion- that Nijinsky’s sincerity was his mediumicity. His ‘sincerity’ was his ability to mutate to meet the medium assigned to him, whether a costume, a set of choreographic steps, a sexual fantasy, or a studio photograph, and then to become that medium, to move through that medium, to transform it into something else entirely with the current of his charisma, which is to say, with Art moving through him. This devotion to total mediumicity, to transformation, made him the shapeshifting ‘god of Dance’ many described him as.
This is most clear in contemporary descriptions of Niijinsky dressing for his performances. His ‘sincerity’, his mediumicity, his special quality, really only presented itself when he put on his costumes and makeup. His future wife described his appearance in and as The Spectre of the Rose this way: “His face was that of a celestial insect, his eyebrows suggesting some beautiful beetle which one might expect to find closest to the heart of a rose, and his mouth was like rose petals.” His biographer writes, “As ever, when costumed and made up, he became possessed. As he danced the endless dance, hardly coming to rest for a moment, weaving evanescent garlands in the air, his lips were parted in ecstasy and he seemed to emit a perfumed gaze.” He then notes, “This shows in the photographs.”
I would argue that it is Nijinsky’s ability to transform and be transformed by the materials he came in contact with that was his genius, his sincerity. He puts on a tunic and ‘becomes possessed’. Descriptions of his dancing frequently require recourse to mixed metaphor or synesthesia—he “seemed to emit a perfumed gaze”, a perfume which supposedly “shows in the photographs”—I.e., forces its scent through the visual trace of the photograph. No medium can contain Nijinsky, it always spreads. As none other than Jean Cocteau also wrote,
“In his costume of curling petals […] he comes through the blue cretonne curtains, out of the warm June night. He conveys—which one would have thought impossible—the impression of some melancholy, imperious scent. Exulting in his rosy ecstasy he seems to impregnate the muslin curtains and possesses the dreaming girl.. . After he has bid a last farewell to his beloved victim he evaporates through the window in a jump to poignant, so contrary to all the laws of flight and balance, following so high and curved a trajectory, that I shall never again smell a rose without this ineffaceable phantom appearing before me.”
In Cocteau’s account, it is the costume of petals that creates a kind of magical elective affinity between Nijinsky’s dancing form and the blue curtains, which he ‘impregnates’, in the dual sense—both through the force of his sex appeal and in the sense that he is ‘impossibly’ transformed to a sent which saturates them. This is almost a more important possession than that of the ‘dreaming girl’, his ‘victim’, for it is by returning to the finality of his curtains and leaping back through the window that Nijinsky plants his viral software permanently in Cocteau’s brain, an image which will pop up at the trigger of the rose’s scent. Cocteau is now a play back device for Nijinsky’s ‘ineffaceable phantom’ image.
All Art at its most Sublime functions this way, and Nijinsky is subliminality itself, always operating as more than can even be organized by the senses, forcing itself through medium after medium and inventing new media—scent-like gazes, for example– to keep the force of Art moving. For me there can be no other sincerity than this total vulnerability to Art’s signal, to making oneself wholly mutable, wholly mediumistic, elapsing into and as medium, and in doing so, being converted to an ineffaceable phantom, a nothing, a triumph.
[NB: All quotes and paraphrases from this post come from Richard Buckle’s Nijinsky, Simon and Schuster, 1971]