A Phantom, A Nothing, A Triumph: Nijinsky's Mediumicity

by 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.”

Cocteau’s sketch of Nijinsky as Spectre

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.

Bakst’s sketch for the costume

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]

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Carina Finn

    I like this idea of sincerity as a triumphant nothing. I like the idea of being nothing but a costume; of genius being itself a costume put on, perhaps, only by those entirely lacking in interiority? this seems to allow, as well, for a discussion of the madness of genius as an unavoidable thing, and maybe also a costume.

    throughout the whole of this sincerity argument I’ve been thinking a lot about Plath, how the persona in her most “confessional” poems is actually all costume and stage props — just like Minnis. Plath pretty much outlines this in The Applicant, which is an awesome poem and can be read as a kind of treatise on a lot of what you’re saying about Nijinsky, I think. Like, in The Applicant some institution (let’s call it Art, or Domesticity — whatever, it actually doesn’t matter, it’s just An Institution) is looking for a Genius; the only real qualification is that the Applicant be both Beautiful and Empty.

  2. Johannes

    True. I think that this model is a rejection of interiority, a myth that a lot of “sincerity” rhetoric depends on. Like we have this individuality lodged inside us somehow and art is about communicating that interiority. And as I wrote in one of my posts, those sincerity arguments always depend on a threat of breakdown in communication (called “Surrealism” or “language poetry” or “Dada”) and a normative idea of “emotions” (emotions they are – to invoke Danielle’s post – “literate” in reading). I also think that in the model posited by Joyelle in this post, medium/art is its own power, where as in traditional ideas of interiority, art becomes this necessary corruption of the interiority. Plath probably makes the discussion more complex because she’s so often interpreted as “confessional” despite all the outfits and props.

    Johannes

  3. Seth Oelbaum

    JM: 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.

    “Sincerity,” then, has little to do with “human experience.” The “sincere” artist is the artist who isn’t human, but who is under the command of God. In his diaries, Nijinsky writes that God would tell him when to end a ballet or when to write. The “sincere” artist is the one who has no human agency because God control them. The artist is an angel: they’re God’s messengers.

    God is a perquisite because an artist can’t “mutate” into something else if they’re still human. The needs of the art come before the needs of the human. Actually, there are no human needs anymore, because there is no human identity anymore. It’s art all the time. God is the only thing that can effect such an extreme and hyperbolic transformation because God literally created everything.

    Taking all this into consideration, “sincerity” becomes obsolete. It’s not whether an artist is “sincere” or not, it’s whether an artist is receiving orders from God or not.

  4. adam strauss

    “The Applicant” is, it’s so true, terrific! So sharp/witty and wonderfully bleakly funny. “Bombs through the roof” and “will yiou marry it…”–what a great pairing!

  5. Kim

    Loved this post and many others lately. I like how sincerity as a concept, or idea, or whatever, through out this discussion, has become more and more fringe-placed, (as new, as new-new), or here, perfectly superfluous, like a prop itself that can be popped on or taken off, worn like any other mask. As a mask sincerity feels more mobile and less limiting, more useful, more fun. My main objection to the concept of sincerity being that it seems to insist on a kind of exclusiveness, that however much it’s stretched to include noise and costumes, it feigns off contradictions. Has to be one way or the other. For me its the contradictions that makes art interesting, and apparently, according to that htmlgiant review, what makes montividayo such a hoot. I like mediumicity because as a function it’s opposition is not insincerity but an unwillingness to engage with art, shut it out. I can live with that.