Carl Davis: Ballet „Nijinsky – God of the Dance“ as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk


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The father of the idea to create a ballet after the life of Vaslav Nijinsky was Christopher Gable, a former director of The Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds. Several co-workers on this project are no more live similarly as Christopher Gable who died in 1998. It is really a great luck that the composer Carl Davis, who was offered to compose the music for the initial project from the time around 1995 engaged to replenish this task after twenty years again in spite of his advanced age. The world premieres of the ballet Nijinsky – God of Dance will be held on November 27 and 28, 2015 in Slovak National Theatre (about the premiere we informed  HERE…).

Slovak version

Carl Davis is world respected author especially of film music. However, beside others, he wrote also several symphonic pieces. In the interview for Opera Slovakia he is speaking not only about his work on this ballet, but also about the research on the various aspects of Nijinsky’s turbulent life and about the substantial historical circumstances as well.

Maestro Davis, how did you approach to this work in Slovak National Theatre?

The choreographer of the ballet Nijinsky – God of Dance Daniel de Andrade was working here before. In fact he is very interesting personality. He comes from Brazil but he lives and works in England. I know him just from the ballet company in England called Northern Ballet Theatre. He came to Bratislava to help with the production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet which was bought by Slovak National Theatre from Northern Ballet. His work has gone on very well so that Jozef Dolinský invited him to do his own ballet. He made suggestion of ballet on life of Nijinsky and Jozef said “Yes, it really sounds interesting for the company”. Daniel and his team had a good experience so that we arrived here. He knew about this project because it begun a long time ago. I think, in about 1995 in England it was going to be done. It had a long history in our lives, this idea had been in existence but never made. Therefore, Dolinský’s invitation was a big chance. I had been involved as a composer also in that version from 1995.

Príprava inscenácie v SND, foto: Alena Klenková/SND

Príprava inscenácie v SND,
foto: Alena Klenková/SND

Have you had your own ideas concerning this ballet?

The only thing that was carried through from my ideas related to the synopsis of the ballet is now the central factor in this production. It starts with the story which interested me immediately. In 1919 after the First World War was over Nijinsky was suffering from schizophrenia. He was already very desperate because his career was interrupted by the war and his relationship with the Ballet Rousse had also been interrupted. He was very ill and in this state he made his last appearance as a dancer in the charity performance in St. Moritz in Switzerland where he was living – in neutral country. He was asked to dance a charity performance for the Red Cross.

Václav Nižinskij na banefičnom koncerte pre Červený kríž

Václav Nižinskij na benefičnom koncerte pre Červený kríž

And, among other things, he chose to do a short solo to a Chopin Prelude C minor. What he did was that he put two pieces of silk on the floor to make a cross and he just stood in the centre of it and did simple movements over and over again. This made very strong impression but after that he really remained very ill for the rest of his life. He died in 1950, so from 1919 to 1950 he was suffering from mental disease going in and out from hospitals and having insulin shocks which were thought they would help him at the time. It was really the terrible life, the tragic life.

However, before he became ill he wrote a diary giving really a lot of information about him. So, I said to my colleagues: “We must start with the Chopin and everything what will follow will be a variation on the Chopin”. If you needed a subtitle for the ballet I would say “Chopin Variations” – in my head three acts of Chopin Variations. That’s kind of basis, this one piece – sixteen bars.

Well, but there is a lot of other music – symphonic, operatic, ballet, this probably somehow depends on the story…

Yes, I shall tell about it but the next stage is the question “What is the story?”. Chopin’s Prelude couldn’t fill the whole evening; it has thirty seconds, maybe forty-five if you play really slowly. Out of these sixteen bars it would be hardly built two hours of music. So the question was how could we tell the story? First of all, it is quite interesting particularly for Bratislava and Slovakia that the story is really international. We have Nijinsky himself from Polish family. Of course, in that time it was a part of Russia, there was no Poland – we are talking on early 20th century, we start around 1900 or maybe 1890. His family was Polish but they were working in a Russian context as dancers. They owned a little company making tours. Later the family broke up, the mother wanted to stay on one place and the father wanted to tour having many girlfriends etc. In the history of the family there was already mental illness – Nijinsky’s brother was epileptic, it’s very hard story. And then, the children with mother moved to St. Petersburg and Nijinsky with his sister became a part of Imperial Ballet – at first in the school and then in the company. Both were revealed as great talents.

This then coincided with meeting a genius man called Sergey Diaghilev, a Russian. So, now we have Polish, Russians and Sergey Diaghilev created the concept of Ballet Rousse and he moved it to become international making tours in Europe, South America and United States. They made grand touring with very revolutionary concept of the dance which could be concisely called by a German word “Gesmtkunstwerk”. Apparently, it’s a kind of borrowed idea – they were very “Wagnerite” at that time with the best music, set design and choreography possible in the theatre. They did not create the big 19th century story ballets but evenings were made up of many short ballets. So this is the difference when comparing with ballets which people usually know and love. They are still done in this time. Also the ballet company of Slovak National Theatre does Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle with big stories like movies. The public likes to see a story but Diaghilev changed it and said “There could be a ballet with little or even no story” and our new ballet is first of all the Nijinsky’s story who is the great star, he was like Rudolf Nureyev. Imagine Nureyev of that time, someone who first of all changed the view on the male dancing. The previous concept of the male dancing was a porter, someone who lifts the ballerina and put her down. With such an idea the male dancer could not be a star.

Skúška k pripravovanej premiére Nižinskij - Boh tanca s choreografom Danielom de Andrade, foto: Peter Brenkus

Skúška k pripravovanej premiére Nižinskij – Boh tanca
s choreografom Danielom de Andrade,
foto: Peter Brenkus

You mentioned Diaghilev and legendary company Ballet Rousse, how about his relation to Nijinsky and how did this company achieved such great success?

There was a strong relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev, a love affair. Now there are several stories: the life of Nijinsky with his rise to become a big star of the Ballet Rousse and the story of Ballet Rousse itself with Diaghilev starting with the first impose which was to bring the Russian art to the West. It began with a big exhibition of Russian art. In our ballet it’s done a little bit showing the Russian icons. Diaghilev came first with opera and brought Chaliapin in as Boris Godunov to Paris. It is reflected by the motif of French anthem before the excerpt from Mussorgsky’s opera. Then he took the ballet out of Russia, the best of Russian dancers with Russian music and created the evenings with shorter ballets.

The one genius of the first period was Stravinsky, the most innovative and revolutionary composer at that time breaking from 19th century into 20th. He brought the music into the 20th century with Fire Bird, Petrushka. However, a part of story is that The Rite of Spring was greeted in Paris with the riot because its music sounded completely new. This is important historic moment in 1913. Then the story goes more towards the astonishing fact that the Nijinsky’s artistic speech was the most innovative. He was not only a dancer but he developed himself as a choreographer as well. With first of all he did a choreography after Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and then The Rite of Spring. In these ballets everything was coming together. Stravinsky and Nijinsky were breaking the rules of ballet completely. Nijinsky’s ballets do not look like ballets at all and the music for them, for example The Rite, is not ballet music in its traditional sense. So they opened the door to the contemporary dance, Nijinsky was the one going like that.

Which role played women in the life of Nijinsky?

Going on further we have a personal story with an important woman at the scene who is Hungarian. So, there are Russians, Poles, Hungarians, this fascinates me. I am usually coming here from London where I live. I fly to Vienna and then I have a short car journey with a moment which feels as a real extraordinary stark fission for me. It always happens when the road divides; to the left you can go to Budapest and to the right you can come in Bratislava. And I keep this feeling, when we are going for lunch after rehearsal. When we were sitting first time in the restaurant I asked “What’s that water?” and I was said “That’s Danube”. Immediately I began to think – if you started to swim that way you can get to Vienna – so I personally feel that there is a kind of energy in the part of world where this current is situated including former Austro-Hungary, Germany continuing to the north… I go very often to Prague because I work there a lot. But there is a different atmosphere because the borders are displayed between the different nationalities that make up the country. I am really fascinated by this place, by the kind of energy which comes from all these different people with their crashes and borders. I think it’s extraordinary.

Skúška k pripravovanej premiére Nižinskij - Boh tanca, kostýmová skúška, foto: Peter Brenkus

Skúška k pripravovanej premiére Nižinskij – Boh tanca,
kostýmová skúška,
foto: Peter Brenkus

So, we had gone out of Russia into the west, we have the triumph of the star, we made a revolution in dance, music and painting – the decor – and now we are coming to Act Two, in which we are turning back to the personal story of Nijinsky. So at first it happens that the woman appears on the scene – a Hungarian Romola Pulszki. She could be concisely characterized by an English word – a starker – someone who follows an important star to catch him. She really followed and followed Nijinsky becoming like obsessive about him. It began when the Ballet Rousse was on tour in Budapest. She lived there being a daughter of famous actress and a famous writer and polititian so that socially she came from highly intellectual world – and she was very pretty. In Act Two she begins to infiltrate to the world of Nijinsky simply by being in his proximity. Wherever the company went she was there. This is quite interesting because on the other hand, Nijinsky was bisexual. In his diary he says that the only people he was comfortable with were prostitutes. He somehow found on that level of these women that they keep a boundary between their life and their profession. So, this was the only place where he was really completely relaxed. Here, a fact should be emphasized that his lover Diaghilev was also his profession; an intellectual as well as dance interest and this immediately provided a fantastic conflict between them. His own physical and psychological state was there with those women of Paris and Spain or other countries wherever they just have been and into this suddenly comes a woman who says “You are my life, you are going to be my life!”

She followed the Ballet Rousse everywhere. She even took private lessons of dancing and later became a part of the company. And this is the moment which is our Act Three. The company goes on tour to South America but Diaghilev hates water, he is frightened from track by sea so that he doesn’t go. This leaves Romola with Nijinsky alone and he suddenly proposes, he says “Ok, will you marry?” They really got married in Buenos Aires and this leaded to the catastrophe. At the same time Diaghilev is in Venice. In our ballet there is a simultaneous double scene – half in Buenos Aires and half in Venice. When he receives a message about the marriage he immediately rejects the contract with Nijinsky. He just says “That’s it, it’s finished!” For Nijinsky this is a catastrophe because he has no work. And thereon it’s going just down and down with him acquiring schizophrenia, visiting hospitals etc. Romola, who got what she wanted – that is Nijinsky – now realizes that she doesn’t have wonderful star but an invalid. Finally there are three stories: first, a Chopin Prelude, which is Nijinsky himself, a part of Europe feeling always strange in the world of this society. Second, the story of Diaghilev and the Ballet Rousse, the company and this man, wonderful, extraordinary and very revolutionary impresario, who was always looking for something new and novel, and third, the historical circumstances, in the middle of them are The First World War and The Second World War.

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij - Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015, Scéna z 1. dejstva, foto: Peter Brenkus

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij – Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015,
Scéna z 1. dejstva,
foto: Peter Brenkus

As you just said, it was a war. Could you tell us something about the opinions of Nijinsky related to the events being in progress in his time?

So by the time we are in Act Three where the lives of Nijinsky and Diaghilev are gone apart. By the marriage there is also the war. There is a big scene concerned with that. In times when Nijinsky was rational he was a kind of naive pacifist. Some excerpts from his 1919 diary will be read during the performance in Slovak by very distinguished actor Róbert Roth. At that moment we have just me speaking in American English (smile). These important excerpts show his pacifist images. Since the story is from a period of great rise of movies we bring also some film sequences from war and the accident of Wright brothers as well. There are some very, very terrific effects using film. This is also a part of our “Gesamtkunstwerk”.

This all is very important, but you are a composer. So, perhaps we should turn to the music…

In the music there are various variations on the Chopin Prelude depending on how we need it to be. There are perhaps twenty different ways of these variations. Then we have the repertoire of Ballet Rousse. There are excerpts from the important ballets Scheherazade, Afternoon of Faun, Sacre du Printemps, Le Spectre de la rose (after the music of Carl Maria von Weber), Giselle, which Nijinsky did with Anna Pavlova who danced Giselle for him, there is a little bit of Chopin Waltz C sharp minor quoted and a big coronation scene from Boris Godunov as well. Diaghilev is crowned – the tsar of ballet! But when we quote from Debussy’s Faun the choir is singing “Aaah…” in – an addition I have made. I mean Debussy never had chorus in Faun but I have made a little reference to Ravel’s Dafnis and Chloe which has the wordless chorus – let’s pretend Ravel heard it from Debussy, it sounds like a little joke. I’m making little jokes for people who have some knowledge on these things, it’s about the cross-referencing. For instance, the major theme from Scheherazade; we use a lot of the first movement from Scheherazade was never used for ballet. The orchestra played first few bars and then it jumped to the second movement. The first movement was never choreographed by Ballet Rousse. In contrast, in my music there is a lot of first movement because it has an epic quality and I thought the story could take it on. So going in and out of these quoted pieces they sometimes help me to tell the story like leitmotifs.

Carl Davis

Carl Davis

On the other hand there is a historical period of early 20th century. I thought this should be expressed by another level which is popular music. At first we have ragtime because this is a great period of this music, then we have a certain kind of bal-musette with the ladies of Paris, in fact a little waltz, we have a tango, again extremely popular for this period. Just tango becomes the love music of Nijinsky and Diaghilev, they also dance it. And a great thing is in Act Three when the Ballet Rousse tours to South America. I said “Here we have to have rumba, samba, and all these different popular dances!” The use of this music is very important because the people from Diaghilev’s company were social animals, they liked parties and other related events. I wanted to get what rooted not just on the ballet stage but also in life, bit rougher, popular, of that time. So our ballet encompasses a really big story, it is very ambitious what we are doing musically here.

Yes, and it’s very interesting and probably also rather complicated. Therefore I want to ask, do you have any system how to put together so much different music?

Yes, I do. The first thing that happens when you create the production like this is that you have synopsis of the story. As I already said, you start with “What’s our story?” To find an answer the choreographer and maybe the dramaturge, the writer eventually might come in with help. First of all, the story is available for us. We know about Nijinsky’s life, the story of the Ballet Rousse, Diaghilev and Romola. This all existed, it happened, there are many books, biographies concerning it. It is all available, it’s not any secret or fantasy, it really happened. At the beginning it is necessary to put all different elements together to say what the story is. Every incident on the stage is based on what we discovered through our research.

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij - Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015, Igor Leushin (Nižinskij), foto: Peter Brenkus

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij – Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015,
Igor Leushin (Nižinskij),
foto: Peter Brenkus

Sometimes we pushed a little into making it more subjective, in a way seeing it through Nijinsky’s eyes. Sometimes we are making a guess but it’s always based on the facts we have read in memoirs. Even the story of the riot during the first night of Le Sacre is based on what everyone said: once it started – it started with very hard high bassoon solo – immediately the people began to cry “What’s that, what’s this…?” The riot was so strong that no one could hear the music at all. So we don’t have to play The Sacre because nobody heard it. Of course, we do play but not for the purpose of the performance of The Sacre, we use this music to tell another kind of story, the personal story.

So we started thinking where we are going to, what interests us about. During our research we collected documents up to the ceiling, rooms and rooms of books and photographs. It’s so frustrating that, unfortunately, there is no film. It could have been because by the time from 1909 to 1913 or 1914 there could be filmed everything. There are lot of photographs, still photographs, paintings of the sets and the costumes; this all exists but no film. And then comes the property of the choreographer. Of course, there were various ways how can the story be presented through comedy. There were obviously discussions with him, but in fact, Daniel put it together making it very personal to himself. He presented us the synopsis in the way of film script, that is describing what should be contained in Scene One, Scene Two (in front of the Mariinsky Theatre), Scene Three (Nijinsky is first time on stage as the Bluebird from Sleeping Beauty), Scene Four (Hotel Party where Nijinsky is introduced to Diaghilev), etc. So the story is broken down to the components.

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij - Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015, Scéna z 3. dejstva, foto: Peter Brenkus

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij – Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015,
Scéna z 3. dejstva,
foto: Peter Brenkus

If you are going to do it in this way then comes my job and I should ask “The party after the show when Nijinsky could be introduced to Diaghilev, how long?” You know, I write a lot of film music which is all about the length, it’s a little bit like being a tailor. Thus, the people first come in, they are dancing the tango because it is a heyday of tango, Nijinsky is going to come in and meet Diaghilev etc… So how long should be taken to Nijinsky comes in? Ok, let’s say a minute. So, now I know that. Well, I’m going to do a minute of music which would be a kind of introductory having a feeling of dancing people. So I write a nice set of tango with sexy atmosphere expressing that something is going to happen. Then he comes in and they meet etc. This has to be a little like a film scene so in some way you’re creating almost really like film music and not dancing. After this scene the party continues again with the dance in tango style. I ask the same question, how long? Ok, maybe two minutes for the whole dance scene. Based on that the whole ballet is mapped out in time like a film. However, the film would last long, about two hours. Now the whole piece has the shape – three acts and inside these acts certain number of scenes. We also know well the time proportion of the whole piece. The First Act will be the longest one, perhaps, having to show and explain the characters; it’s a kind of exposition. So, having a piece of paper which looks like a film script I can work out with my corve.

There is probably some difference between the ways how to write the thirty seconds long music and that lasting let’s say three minutes…

Let’s think about this difference. When the time exceeds three minutes you are already in a symphonic situation. You need more themes and to work with their motifs, this calls the development. Once you are approaching three minutes you have a substantial piece of music which must be done different compared to let’s say 30 seconds. Ballet is a never-replay; it could not be made up from short sequences. Sometimes they can be linked, joined, so they seem to be longer pieces but anyway they must be shaped to dramatically do the job providing right mood and right character and this is always subjective. But you must always think with front of the theatre, what the spectators see. I need to know what does the audience going to see and what the character is.

Now comes the situation in which we know that there are variations on Chopin Prelude on one hand intended as character music, original music I would write and the music of Ballet Rousse which would be quoted according to my proposals which part of Faun, Scheherazade, and other pieces will be selected. This is substantial, because for example Scheherazade is up to 30 minutes piece. So I’m then able to offer the music to the choreographer. We have meetings where I play and show him my work. We are thinking “That’s good, oh, that’s not so good”, it’s kind of fun, the situation is very fluid. Then I can to try making some recording with me playing the piano all we got from Faun, Scheherazade etc and my new music. Nowadays there is also a technical facility to simulate the score how it can sound like except what I wrote for chorus… So we have three kinds of music, Chopin on one hand, new music by me written special for the given situations and the Ballet Rousse repertoire – the three elements.

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij - Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015, Artemyj Pyzhov (Nižinskij), foto: Peter Brenkus

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij – Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015,
Artemyj Pyzhov (Nižinskij),
foto: Peter Brenkus

Why did you use the mixed choir in your composition? For ballet this is rather unusual…

Yes, now came the wonderful idea – the theatre staff said “We have a chorus. Do you want to use it? Because they are not so busy during this time. How about the chorus?” I said: “Well, there is the tradition of Diaghilev with Boris Godunov and Polovstian Dances”. One of the first big successes which Ballet Rousse exerted was when they went in Paris not with dancers only but Diaghilev brought also the chorus of the Mariinski Theatre together with the opera company; so he was very spending.

I think this is quite important since we are doing now something very interesting for a ballet because of the unique situation in Eastern Europe having ballet, opera and drama in the same theatre, in the same institution. You have really a lot of acting space in the Historical Building, the New Building, the Black box (it’s Studio, editor’s note – smile). Actually we have a fantastic opportunity to make opera-ballet which integrates one of the elements of the Slovak National Theatre – the chorus. You know, you are also an opera house so that, of course, you have a chorus but the ballet companies usually don’t have it, maybe if they do The Nutcracker it’s nice to involve boys singing in snow in the end of the Act One but this is quite rare except the circumstances like Diaghilev’s concept in which he decided to do the Act Two of Prince Igor with Polovstian Dances and so on. In fact he did it in the same night after the premiere of Sacre in 1913 because the finale of the evening was Polovstian Dances with Russian chorus which was doing Boris Godunov in another night. So they were performed with the mixed team of Ballet Rousse and the chorus.

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij - Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015, Andrej Szabo (Ďagilev), zbor Opery SND, foto: Peter Brenkus

C. Davis, D. de Andrade: Nižinskij – Boh tanca, Balet SND, 2015,
Andrej Szabo (Ďagilev), zbor Opery SND,
foto: Peter Brenkus

I haven’t added human voices to The Sacre because in my opinion Stravinsky’s stage works would never love the arrangements. But in our concept the chorus is involved – maybe it’s a little joke for chorus singers “Oh, they want me to use in ballet, I have got a night off”. I could say that I don’t need it but my spontaneous reaction was: “What a fantastic idea” also because we know that Slovak National Theatre did Mussorgsky and Borodin. It is also a part of history of your theatre that you were using the music of Ravel’s Dafnis and Chloe and I know you are going to revive it next year.

Then I invented that fantasy on Debussy, if he had the idea to do the Faun first as a choral piece. So I made that joke as I mentioned above. You see, also Debussy was thinking about adding the chorus to Faun, it is Debussy himself who wrote wonderful piece called Sirènes for the women’s voices and orchestra. He composed also La Demoiselle élue, The Blessed Demoiselle. It is a very early cantata also for women’s voices and orchestra. This means that there is a tradition to hear sometimes female voices in his own works and this is also a reason why I made it. I think the story we are telling at the Faun is at all a little bit mixed – masculine and feminine – so I could add mixed chorus. I wrote it after the tradition as it was done for this sort of music. Although Debussy haven’t done it at this point but I thought we can make a suggestion. It’s very sexy and it really has a terrific effect.

Thank you very much for the interview

I thank you also and for me this meeting is the beginning of the entire story.

Pripravil: Ján Marták

Podporte časopis Opera Slovakia
Článok je chránený autorským zákonom a jeho akékoľvek použitie, alebo šírenie bez písomného súhlasu redakcie Opera Slovakia alebo autora je zakázané.

O autorovi

zástupca šéfredaktora Opera Slovakia, podpredseda redakčnej rady Opera Slovakia, spravodajca, publicista a odborný korektor, člen Slovenského centra Medzinárodnej asociácie divadelných kritikov (SC AICT)

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