Nora Chipaumire by Sasha Arutyunova.
This past October, two contemporary reimaginings of The Rite of Spring had their premieres—Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company & SITI Company’s A Rite at BAM, and Nora Chipaumire’s rite riot at the French Institute-Alliance Française’s Le Skyroom, presented as a part of the Crossing the Line Festival. Choreographing The Rite of Spring is an enduring and ubiquitous trend in dance. What keeps drawing artists back to this particular work, and the particular riot it incited in the audience the night of its 1913 premiere? In the case of Bill T. Jones and Anne Bogart, the desire to recreate this iconic work was not their own, but rather was presented to them as a commission in light of the work’s centennial. In a post-show discussion, Jones mentioned that he was initially resistant to the notion of creating yet another The Rite of Spring. As a black man, he felt angered by the primitivism that constituted Vaslav Njinsky’s original choreography. While a critique of the work’s colonialist premise was not visibly present in Jones and Bogart’s A Rite, this was the point of departure for Chipaumire’s rite riot, which can be seen as a tangential counterpoint to The Rite of Spring, rather than as a strict iteration.
Since seeing these two starkly different approaches to The Rite of Spring, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between looking and seeing. What are the conditions of a performance that give me permission not only to look at it, but also to see it? By seeing, I mean that I experience a kind of reciprocity between myself and the dance. As I see it, it moves through me, and there is a kind of tangible, albeit invisible, ping-ponging of energy between my body and it. When I see Chipaumire perform rite riot, I get the feeling that she is watching me just as much, if not more, than I am watching her. For the entirety of the piece, Chipaumire moves from within the confines of a raised glass box, designed by Peter Born. The glass box is not entirely closed off—there are openings on each side—and at times it is hard to tell if I am seeing Nora through the glass, or if there is just air between us. The glass functions to remind me of the multiple ways that my perception of another body is constantly being mediated—glass or no glass—by language, history, and context. The openings suggest that Nora might, at any moment, leave her box, but as the piece continues, it becomes clear that she wants us to see her like this. It is both a choice and a rite, an inheritance of her embodied history, of her “black African body.”
Nora Chipaumire by Sasha Arutyunova.
The presence of these signifiers is reiterated to the audience through a scroll of text titled “Black African Body. 2013-14. Flesh, bone, hair. 5’6 × 2’ x 42”. Private Collection.” Draped from the ceiling of Le Skyroom and running across the floor so that we must cross over it in order to take our seats, the text, by James Hannaham, is a satirical play on a museum placard. It compares Chipaumire to Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, more famously known as the Hottentot Venus, who was exhibited throughout Europe in the early 19th century as a fetishized representation of Africa. Hannaham describes Chipaumire with the same kind of objectifying discourse that was used to describe Baartman. The language cuts her up into pieces, and then there she is—a whole body before us—awaiting our consumption. This is a historical restaging of the early 19th century colonizing gaze. Chipaumire puts us in the position of the white Europeans who asserted and reaffirmed their power by looking at Baartman. But now Chipaumire is flipping the script—our gazing is mutual, and it’s necessarily uncomfortable.
Seeing Chipaumire brought me back to Nijinsky, and the way people looked at him. It’s important to note that before Nijinsky moved behind the curtain to choreograph The Rite of Spring, he was the Ballets Russes’ star male dancer, performing in many works by Michele Fokine. Arguably one of the most mythologized dancers of the 20th century, Nijinsky was known for his sexually ambiguous and “exotic” roles that disrupted traditional ballet conventions. When Russian art impresario Serge Diaghilev brought the newly formed Ballets Russes to perform in Paris for the first time in 1909, the presence of virtuosic male bodies was shocking. For several decades, ballet stages had been primarily populated by female dancers, with men filling supporting, rather than starring roles. Diaghilev’s reintroduction of the male dancer to European stages coincided with the emergence of homosexuality as a self-defining sexual category. At a time when homosexuality had been named, but remained simultaneously unspeakable, Diaghilev offered up a space where men could look at other men, and in particular, where an elite homosexual crowd of artists, writers, and intellectuals could look at Nijinksy.
Cyril Beaumont with an image of Leon Bakstâ€™s design for Nijinskyâ€™s Faun costume, 1912 (Howard D. Rothschild Collection, The Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library).
The above photo was taken in 1912. It captures Cyril W. Beaumont—a British book dealer, balletomane, and dance historian—looking at a painting of Nijinsky. In 1913, Beaumont saw each and every one of Nijinsky’s performances in the Ballet Russes’ London season. Beaumont would later go on to write several books about the company, including Vaslav Nijinsky, published in 1932. Of the Ballets Russes’ Paris debut, Beaumont writes,
The chief attraction for the season was to be Nijinsky, presented as a strange, exotic being who could dance like a god. His slanting eyes and his finely-chiselled lips were to be emphasized with grease-paint; his roles were to be of the most unusual type; his dances were to be designed so that he could display his wonderful elevation in every aspect.
Here, Beaumont takes a constructionist approach to Nijinsky’s othering, highlighting the use of theatrical devices to portray him as “a strange, exotic being.” However, this approach is later abandoned when Beaumont suggests that Nijinsky is, in fact, inherently other: “His features, with their high cheek bones and abnormally slanting eyes, suggested the Mongol rather than the European.” Beaumont continues to slip back and forth, conflating the fashioning of exterior “appearances” with interior “essences”:
As a dancer his work was not always of the robust, manly type. Yet neither was it altogether effeminate. Always he appeared to be of a race apart, or another essence than ourselves, an impression heightened by his partiality for unusual roles, which were either animal-like, mythological, or unreal. On the stage he seemed surrounded by some invisible, yet susceptible halo. Had Oberon touched him lightly with his magic wand at birth.
This racialized and mythologizing language reveals a mapping of social relations: as long as Nijinsky could be considered “a race apart,” he was also therefore not all together “manly.” The exoticization of Nijinsky’s body feminized him in a way that made homoerotic spectatorship possible. Like Hannaham’s satrical text for rite riot, Beaumont’s use of language as a form of othering is historically reminiscent of the way Baartman was described by scientists in the early 19th century. In both cases, the marginal body becomes a site of projections for the negotiation of anxieties around race and sexuality. While for Baartman, colonizing language was a tool of imprisonment and confinement, Nijinsky was given a stage, and with that came the permission to play. Unlike Baartman, Nijinsky had the agency to take up space.
Vaslav Nijinksy in Le spectre de la rose.
The consideration of space brings us to a major point of differentiation between Jones’ and Bogart’s approach to The Rite of Spring and Chipaumire’s. Where as Chipaumire chose to work with the enclosed space of the glass box and the history embedded in it, Jones and Bogart took up the open expanse of the stage and all of its theatrical conventions. While watching A Rite, I became hyper aware of the distance between my body and what was happening on stage. Although the performance is extremely physical—featuring nine highly skilled and captivating dancers from Jones’ company who move voraciously for the majority of the piece—the choreography tends to make a caricature out of movement. When all of the performers bend and shake their knees, with their eyes darting around, the signification is clear. This is the image of a fearful body, so the dancers act afraid. The artificiality of these gestures leaves me feeling disconnected. The dancing is often interrupted by one three actors who play the roles of a soldier, a musicologist, and a scientist. They wander on and off stage, sometimes participating in ensemble choreography, but primarily to deliver monologues that communicate each of their respective roles. Ellen Lauren, who plays the musicologist, serves as a kind of mediator between the audience and The Rite of Spring—offering contextual information about Stravinsky, commenting on its structure, asking questions of the dancers like, “What does the music make you do?” Lauren becomes the delineated entry point through which the audience enters the piece. We don’t have to ask questions because she asks them for us. If Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring confounded the theatrical conventions of ballet so much so that it ventured beyond the audience’s comprehension of what was permissible, and even possible on stage, then Bogart’s and Jones’s A Rite did the exact opposite. Upholding the static positioning of performers and audience that constitute passive spectatorship, A Riteentertains, and in doing so, makes looking comfortable.
Ellen Lauren in A Rite. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Today, Nijinsky is a ghost. And the stories we tell about him persist in spite of, and because of, his absence. We know a lot about how others saw him—text can tell us that—but without his body, without his dancing, there isn’t any viable way to sense him. Chipaumire’s rite riothelped me understand this. After watching her dance in that glass box for over an hour, something started to shift, in her body but also in my perception of her. She was moving more quickly—the held positions, the grotesque expressions, her controlled breathing—had all accumulated into a dance of multiple histories, rhythms, and initiations. These lines of energy moved through her body and out. They hit the glass walls and seeped through the openings. In Chipaumire’s rite riot, she is not just herself, she is both Nijinsky and Baartman. And her Rite of Spring is not merely a rite for her, it is also a rite for us.
Lauren Grace Bakst makes dances and organizes conversations.