Dusting off one of my last essays from undergrad. It’s a bittersweet one, as I combined philosophy and dance for my “Philosophy of the Arts” course, which I adored and miss very much.
It isn’t perfectly researched and we had a page limit, so maybe I’ll expand on it later. I found great joy in the philosophy of aesthetics, mainly Kantian theory.
3 May 2015
The Madness of Genius: Three Choreographic Masterpieces of The Rite of Spring
It is commonly known that Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 composition of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) is a work of musical genius and mastery. What is less understood by the general public, however, is that Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring choreography is equally as important and masterful. And, further, Nijinsky’s Rite is not alone; two other Rites, which are neither copies nor derivatives of Nijinsky’s choreography, have stood the test of time as masterpieces. Maurice Béjart’s Rite (1959) and Pina Bausch’s Rite (1975) were created as unique choreographic works that depict humanity’s relationship to nature by using the unique compositions with unparalleled movements. These three Rites by Nijinsky, Béjart, and Bausch embody Immanuel Kant’s notion of the genius and prove that dance can be a considered both a free beauty and dependent beauty.
The Rite with the most reverence happens to be the Rite with the least preserved notation. Vaslav Nijinsky, born in 1889, was an incomparable Russian dancer during the start of the twentieth century, consumed by his own ideas about movement. He was part of the infamous European-Russian artistic ballet troupe, Ballet Russes, which was directed by his lover and benefactor, Serge Diaghilev. Nijinsky’s Rite premiered at the The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913 with roaring remarks. This single performance was hailed as both “a crime against grace” and “a masterpiece” (Siegel). Removing the mythological riot from this premiere, the peculiar and chaotic choreography proved to be optimistically ahead of its time. Like his smaller previous creations, L’après-midi d’un faune and Jeux, Nijinsky worked to break the limitations and assumptions of previous dance forms through more natural and emotive movements, rather than ballet’s forced mime and the predictable positions of the waltz. Shortly after the highs and lows of this premiere, Nijinsky struggle to survive mentally. Following a disastrous tour to North and South America, he was declared mentally insane, and as a result The Rite of Spring remains his final masterpiece that almost disappeared entirely.There were a handful of mimic-Rites to appear after 1913, but it was not until 1959 that the next true Rite masterpiece was created by the French choreographer, Maurice Béjart. In a time when ballet was seeking young blood, Béjart, born in 1927, appeared as a particular dancer and choreographer of worldwide interest. His work before Rite was intriguing and mysterious, with hints of avant-garde developments in atmosphere and movement (Sigman). Yet, when Béjart’s Rite was created in 1959 for his company, Béjart Ballet Lausanne, the world finally understood his unparalleled talent for creating dance. Béjart’s talent is obvious in his Rite—only his third full-length work as a professional choreographer—because it touched on the spirit of the era to come, the experimentalism of the 60’s (Siegel). Additionally, Béjart’s Rite has been called a “modern mating dance” because it captures the essence and spirit of nature as celebrated by humans, like Nijinsky’s Rite, without the frills and pomp as seen in previous attempted Rites.
A massive influx of Rites have appeared between 1959 through today, yet only one reigns supreme. The latest acknowledged Rite masterpiece is Pina Bausch’s 1975 creation. As a talented dancer from Germany, Bausch traveled from Europe to America back to Europe at an early age, training her body and mind to various ballet and modern dance techniques. In 1972, Bausch decided to form her own movement language, and she finally settled in Germany as the artistic director of the Wuppertal Opera, which would later serve as her own company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Abrams). Along with a handful of impressive theatrical dances, Bausch created her last full-length and full-dance piece, Frühlingsopfer (The Rite of Spring) for Tanztheater Wuppertal. It combines the expressionist freedom of the German Tanztheater dance principals and the elegant fluidity of emotions from ballet; yet, it is impressively unlike Tanztheater and ballet. Some claim that it is the “70’s feminist ‘fuck you’ to Nijinsky,” while others boldly state that it is the definitive Rite of the twentieth century (Meisner). The entire structure of Bausch’s Rite, like Béjart’s and Nijinsky’s, is unique because rather than using the external impulse from the music, it explores the inner impulse of the dancers as they vibrate and pulsate on the peat soil thrown across the stage. And through her unique dance language, Bausch’s Rite successfully connects humans back to nature.
The German philosophy, Immanuel Kant, was indispensable to the study of aesthetics. Kant’s Critique of Judgment provides a vital observation on fine art and the artists that make fine art. In regards to dance, Kant has little consideration for it in Critique of Judgment. Supposing certain dance pieces from specific dance forms follow Kant’s rules for fine art then dance can be measured by Kantian philosophy. The categories of free beauty and dependent beauty from section XVI are essential in order to consider dance a part of fine art and, subsequently, dance pieces as creations of genius. The issue with dance, however, is that it is so closely paired to music, classical music in most cases of dance works such as Rite; therefore, can dance be classified as a free beauty when it is twice removed from the original source—nature—since it follows after classical music, an acknowledge free beauty? Also, in its essence dance choreography should be classified as free beauty, unattached to concepts and universally beautiful in all movements. Yet, with numerous dance forms created by different peoples, dance can become a dependent beauty attached to various structured styles and techniques, with language added to music, containing characters for the plot of the dance, etc. Likewise, the audience will always bend dance from free beauty to dependent beauty at the will of their minds during a live performance, crafting stories that do not intentionally exist.
Along with free and dependent beauty, Kant also connects fine art works to the notion of the genius in sections XLVI and XLVII. The notion of the genius is unequivocally part of the dance world, because extraordinary masterpieces in dance are created and acknowledge every decade. Kant’s accordance of genius is a simple regulation for fine art; a great artist either creates a beautiful masterpiece or he/she does not. Masterpieces from geniuses are original, emblematic, different; there are examples of this in dance, especially Western dance. Hence, genius is not limited to the visual arts; to not classify dance works and choreographers under the guidelines of genius is unjust.
The three instances of masterful works of fine art and beautiful dance choreography of Rite by Nijinsky, Béjart, and Bausch help clear up dance in terms of Kantian philosophy. These three Rites are free beauties at their creation and in their choreography; it becomes closer to dependent beauty when the audience applies previous ideas of what the Rite is supposed to mean. With an audience attached to the traditional characteristics of ballet and the structure of social dance Nijinsky’s Rite proved that it is the audience that looks for dependent beauty qualifications in the costuming, set design, and grouping when, in fact, this dance was created as a pure, naturalistic abstraction dance with no traditional attachments in atmosphere, plot, character, and movement. In addition, the basic universal understanding of a sacrifice is apparent in the loose “plot” of Nijinsky’s Rite, and the fearful worship of nature that is deeply rooted in humanity is also comprehensible to all viewers. These simple qualities make Nijinsky’s Rite a free beauty at its core. Nijinsky’s Rite remains a choreographic work about life and death, the essence of renewal in nature.
Béjart’s Rite and Bausch’s Rite are doomed to be instantly judged simply because they appear after Nijinsky’s choreography; however, in spite of the same virtuous Stravinsky composition used, neither choreographer recreated Nijinsky’s Rite in any way or form. In Béjart’s Rite no specific characters were formed, no plot was followed exactly, and the movement qualities created were entirely experimental and progressive. Béjart created a Rite solely about the natural properties of reproduction as seen in human beings with group relations of males and females studied through dance (Sigman). Likewise, a serious concentration into inner impulses with voluntary movements helped Bausch create a free beauty Rite about repetition that was later falsely characterized as a work of “feminist propaganda” by some audience members. Bausch’s Rite is impressively human, connecting all the male and female dancers to nature through distressed movement; it becomes one of the most universal dance pieces of Bausch’s vast repertory.
All three choreographers are unparalleled geniuses of twentieth century dance. Nijinsky as an artist suffered many waves of apparent madness, as did Béjart and Bausch in their own regard, which can classify them as geniuses. They danced and choreographed against their generation, their culture, and their own mind. Nijinsky’s Rite also had a lasting imprint of genius which helped Western dance transform from classical to modern. In his only comprehensive notebook written months before he was institutionalized, Nijinsky did not write about his choreographic process for Rite; he only stated that he had to dance, had to create, and had to die (Siegel). With the eight-year long researched reinstatement of his Rite by the Joffrey Ballet and dance historian Millicent Hodson, Nijinsky’s Rite was finally confirmed as a masterpiece before all current generations worldwide, and it is only performed on tour by the Joffrey Ballet and Kirov Ballet (Sigman). The genius of Béjart is similar to Nijinsky in that he left no exact notes about his choreographic process or intentions. He could not describe nor explain his Rite, only that he had to make his own movement with the composition, rather than mimic it. And, along with his own company in Europe, Béjart’s Rite can only be performed in Asia by the Tokyo Ballet. In terms of Bausch’s Rite, the genius is evident in her creation of a total environment that captures the juxtaposition of humans living fearfully in nature (Abrams). Dancers claim that with this performance, “You have to go all the way,” meaning the levels of intense movement expectations are high, and only the esteemed Paris Opera Ballet can perform this piece—financially, legally, and physically—when the Tanztheater Wuppertal is not performing it (Meisner).
With their own original conceptions for Rite, Vaslav Nijinsky, Maurice Béjart, and Pina Bausch pushed past the conventional eras that they were contained in. These three Rites are not like the now over 40 Rite of Spring choreographic variations. They are momentous works of genius that prove that dance is a free beauty, devoted to the representation of universal beauty through human movement, but dance can be also be dependent beauty with the different perspectives and assumptions that audience members bring to the performance space.
Abrams, Joshua. “The Contemporary Moment of Dance: Restaging Recent Classics.” Journal of Performance and Art. 90 (2008): 42-51. Pdf.
Meisner, Nadine. “Life and Meaning.” Dancing Times. Feb. 2008. 25- 27 Pdf.
Siegel, Marcia B. Mirrors and Scrims: The Afterlife of Ballet. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010. 4-6, 6-5, 15-17, 17-24, 39-41, 354-357, 370-377. Print.
Sigman, Matthew. “Spring Fever.” American Theatre. April 2013. 28-31. Pdf.