PRINT September 2008


Yves Saint Laurent, Mummy Bridal Dress, 1965. Photo: Chris Guest/Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal.

IGOR STRAVINSKY WORKED on the music for Les Noces—the 1923 ballet that is the original source for I Do, the third and final part of Michael Clark’s “Stravinsky Project”—for nearly ten years, commencing almost immediately after he finished The Rite of Spring. Bronislava Nijinska, who choreographed Les Noces, did not begin the actual work on the ballet’s staging until 1921, but it could be argued that she, too, had spent almost an entire decade preparing for it. In 1914, Nijinska had left Paris, where she and her brother Vaslav Nijinsky danced with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in order to return to her native Russia. During the following seven years she opened her School of Movement in Kiev and developed her theories of dance while collaborating with artists such as Alexandra Exter and Natalia Goncharova. Once back in Paris, she was thus able to approach the work on Les Noces with a new vocabulary—one defined by an uncompromising abstraction of classical ballet, reflecting both the political and social realities of the Soviet state and the formal concerns of Constructivism.

Stravinsky’s composition for four pianos, tuned and untuned percussion, choir, and four solo singers seems both modern and archaic in its intensity: It describes a Russian peasant wedding yet is presented as a sacred drama, an inescapable fate awaiting the bride. To dramatize this basic narrative, Nijinska deploys large groups of dancers, strictly divided by gender, performing asymmetrical patterns and ritualistic sequences and almost always facing the audience with a flat frontality. In its aesthetic and attitude, then, her choreography is as distinctly modernist (and archaic) as Stravinsky’s score: The dancing follows the given narrative but concentrates it into an abstract ritual with such formal devices as mechanistic movements, friezelike compositions (that are held and repeated by the formations of dancers), blank facial expressions, and fast rhythmic pointe work that Nijinska derived from hair-braiding patterns used in traditional wedding rituals. Equally significant is the way her choreography assumes a collective body, foregrounding the collective over the individual—challenging the privileges of the soloist in the hierarchy of classical ballet while at the same time positioning Les Noces within her experience of revolutionary Russia. In fact, by staging the wedding as a compulsory social ritual to which the bride is subjected, Nijinska’s work offers a protofeminist approach that—like her reduced aesthetic and graphic treatment of space and image—remains relevant and interesting. It is not surprising that Les Noces, however clearly anchored it is in the political and cultural concerns of its time, should be one of the few classic works by a female choreographer that is still performed by contemporary ballet companies.

In I Do, Clark addresses both the history of Nijinska’s original staging and the urgency that drives Stravinsky’s music. While he refers to the original libretto’s wedding ritual throughout, he departs from the narrative structure of events. The dancers link arms and clench fists as they do in Nijinska’s version, but these gestures are integrated into the sequences and patterns that define Clark’s specific approach: The formal rigor and artifice of ballet technique is the foundation on which he bases his movements, yet his distinct vocabulary depends on abandoning dance’s traditional emphasis on beauty, seamlessness, and illusion. Rather, Clark allows the dancer’s body to have weight and the construction of each movement to be clearly visible. An antagonism between discipline and abandon even seems to be a central force in his work—a conflict that needs to be constantly renegotiated in an effort to remain unresolved.

The greater implications of the body, as it is placed within Clark’s choreography, are suggested at the very beginning of I Do, which dramatically underlines Clark’s approach to tradition and, moreover, to that central theme in Nijinska’s original—the relationship between the individual and the collective. The rising curtain reveals a chorus of some forty singers, divided into two phalanxes flanking a central aisle—men on one side, women on the other—while in the orchestra pit four soloists stand elevated on platforms so that their upper bodies are visible to the audience. The perfect symmetry of this staging is disturbed by an oversize black-and-white matryoshka doll on the right side of the stage. As the singers give voice to the opening chords of Stravinsky’s score, a spotlight illuminates the doll, which opens to reveal a dancer dressed in a flesh-colored bodysuit, knitted cape, and headpiece. The dancer steps out on pointe assisted by two othersthe bride is thus introduced as a solitary figure set apart from the group, restricted in her movement by the confines of classical ballet language. (At the end of the piece, in fact, the bride appears in a wedding dress, based on a 1965 Yves Saint Laurent design, that encases her completely, allowing almost no movement at all.) As if to underscore this confinement, the other thirteen dancers are dressed in matching flesh-colored suits decorated with satin bands that look like the straps of the traditional pointe shoe wrapped around a ballerina’s ankle. The entire body of each dancer seems to be on pointe. If Nijinska’s ritualistic group formations were informed by the experience of Communism and Constructivism, Clark creates a more complicated dynamic: He locates the individual within the structure of the group but at the same time allows the articulation of a distinct position. By placing formal decisions at the center of his project, he constructs a relationship between individual and collective that privileges neither and that, as it goes beyond simplified concepts of individualism or collectivity, seems incredibly resonant today.

Silke Otto-Knapp is an artist based in London.