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About the Change

Les Noces

Brendan McCarthy explores why Nijinska’s masterpiece has stood the test of time and discusses the background to the Kirov and Royal Ballet productions of the work.

(click for larger image)
© Valentin Baranovsky

Kirov in London 2003

Kirov 'Les Noces' performances

'Les Noces' reviews

RB 'Les Noces' reviews

Kirov 'Les Noces' reviews?

Brendan McCarthy reviews

Les Noces is a prism through which are refracted many of the social, artistic and political currents of its time. Bronislava Nijinska, who brooked little argument from her artistic collaborators, choreographed it with great singularity of purpose. “An entire Red Army division seems to be involved as well as crowds of working class people”, Andre Levinson wrote of Les Noces after its first performance in 1923. “It seems like electrification applied to ballet.” Les Noces is one of the Ballets Russes’ most piquant works. It reflects the sensibilities of old Russia and of the new Soviet Russia then struggling to be born.

The Royal Ballet’s version of Les Noces enjoys a particular patina of authority, both because it was staged by Bronislava Nijinska herself in 1966, and because it has been documented with notable scrupulousness in notation and on video. Since then Nijinska’s daughter, Irina, has asserted authenticity for versions of the work that she has staged. There are several alternative Benesh and Laban scores, and at least four televised versions of the work. Crucially, Nijinska staged her classic on a Royal Ballet, then schooled in Ashtonian style, which adapted with relative ease to her work. Today’s company, with a different aesthetic, might perform it differently. This month the Kirov Ballet brings its own version of Les Noces to London in a production which has a somewhat different history to that of the Royal Ballet. It was set on the Kirov by Howard Sayette, the former balletmaster of the Oakland Ballet, who in 1981 learnt the work from Irina Nijinska. Her knowledge of the work was based on memories of having danced in a 1933 production of Les Noces and of having assisted her mother at the 1970 staging at the Teatro della Fenice in Venice.

Background to the work

Les Noces (in Russian, Svadebka) was ten years in gestation. Diaghilev commissioned the score from Stravinsky in 1913, intending that it be choreographed by Nijinsky. In the event, it fell to Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava to realise the work. Les Noces is important because of its choreography, its score, and its subordination of design to Nijinska’s vision of the work. While it has echoes of Nijinsky’s Sacre, unlike the earlier work it does not altogether eschew ballet, as is evidenced by its innovative use of pointe. Les Noces echoes the intellectual ferments of its time: its creator, recently returned to Paris from Soviet Russia, was intent on developing ideas that she had incubated at her ‘School of Movement’ in Kiev.

While in Russia between 1914 and 1921 Nijinska refined her own choreographic beliefs. She sought to train a “new type of ballet artist”, who could dance her brother’s ballets. Among her pupils was Alexandre Exter, the avant-garde designer, a leading figure in the emerging Ukrainian constructivist movement. Exter and her contemporaries applied a Cubist vision to the social demands and industrial tasks of the new Soviet Union. Her preoccupations were reflected in

“An agitprop piece designed to be taken to the villages in order to educate peasant women about the injustices they had long endured”
Sally Banes

Nijinska’s own. Influenced by the analogies between bodily movement and that of machines, Nijinska emphasised movement, and its dynamic quality, rather than the static points of pose, position and gesture. She was also influenced by the social purpose of the constructivists. The feminist academic Sally Banes sees Les Noces as akin to “an agitprop piece designed to be taken to the villages in order to educate peasant women about the injustices they had long endured”.

The Russian peasant name for the wedding ceremony, svádebnaya igrá or wedding play, accents the identity of the participants as dramatic actors or participants in a liturgy, with pre-determined parts. Nijinska may have had a proto-feminist intent, but she also saw this wedding as a sacred drama, as became clear when she cast it in London. According to David Drew of the Royal Ballet, Nijinska insisted that the bride’s face have a ‘spiritual quality’, and for this reason chose Svetlana Beriosova. Other members of the 1966 Royal Ballet cast remember that she cast a non-dancer, Ray Roberts, as the bride’s father on the basis of a perceived spirituality alone.

The ballet and its tableaux

The religiosity of the occasion is in the weft and warp of Les Noces from the very beginning. The conductor Leonard Bernstein spoke of Stravinsky’s opening “cruel chord, made crueller with the lack of preparation”. The opening bourrées on parallel pointe to the side stab downwards, while the chorus (singing the bride’s assistants) evoke the ‘match-maker unmerciful’. The dancers, intended to resemble the icons of Byzantine saints, seem abstracted, making no eye contact with the audience. This is less a moment of theatre than the performance of a rite. It is also something else: a declaration that the language of classical ballet is pliable and not inevitably shackled to Petipa and Ivanov. The Bride may be “sold” into her marriage, but the steps she dances in pointe shoes dyed brown (intended by Nijinska to express the rhythm of braiding), free ballet from its Imperial past and are a manifesto for its continued place in the dance of the 20th century.

This scene has a further significance: it is Nijinska’s filial tribute to her brother, and, by extension, to Sacre’s Chosen One. The Bride’s braids recall the braids worn by Nijinsky’s Sacrificial Victim. So too do some of the ballet’s later poses. The bride’s resting of her face (at an angle of 90 degrees) on a hand supported by an upwardly bent arm, vividly recalls the Chosen One. They might both be sisters and martyrs; the Bride almost a Christian Martyr, as Les Noces’ ‘sorrowful mysteries’ unravel. The scene ends with the Bride looking over a pyramidal formation of her friends, their faces turned sideways with their eyes tracing a near vertical line from apex to base. This, with the later friezes, suggests a world of irresistible social forces, in which individuals have little choice, but are overwhelmed by predetermined necessity.

It is often said of Les Noces that the wedding ceremony itself is missing. While that may be so, strictly speaking, Nijinska sought to escape literalism and instead to express deeper choreographic truths through the movement of her ensembles and the dynamism of their body language. The second scene tableau, The Consecration of the Groom, explicitly recalls religious gesture, both in the seeming anointing of the groom by his friends and in his

“What is new is Nijinska’s shaping of the upper body in a way without precedent in ballet.”

Mother’s blessing. Meanwhile the choir prays that the Madonna, the Apostles, and saints of the Russian Orthodox Church will attend to the wedding. Les Noces is not a heavily classical work and draws heavily on folk steps in this scene. What is new is Nijinska’s shaping of the upper body in a way without precedent in ballet. Arms are not outstretched but held in check, imprisoning the body rather than extending it. This scene has two further formations: a wedge (almost a walking wall) of the bridegroom’s assistants, and a pyramid, echoing that of the bride and her friends, but more surely dominated by the groom.

The third scene synthesises the first two, beginning almost cinematographically with a repeat of the bridal pyramid. The choir continues with a litany of invocation, interleafed with expressions of her Mother’s grief at parting. The corps’ increasingly frenetic hops were, according to Irina Nijinska, intended to evoke the jolts of a bridal carriage on a bumpy road. If the religious heart of the wedding is in the choreography it is here: represented not as the couple’s ecstatic union, but with the Bride’s mother’s grief at the loss of her daughter.


The Wedding Feast in the Kirov's production of Les Noces
Photograph © Valentin Baranovsky

In the final scene, The Wedding Feast, the principal characters are ‘backgrounded’ on a raised platform or cell downstage, which leads to the bridal chamber. The corps, carries the increasingly excitable action as the words sung by choir and soloists become more and more disconnected. This marriage is a triumph of community, the realisation of an essential ‘social fact’. But the principal actors are divorced from the euphoria of their fellow-villagers. Reconnection is made with their departure to the wedding bed, the tolling of a bell and the formation of a new pyramid, dominated by the groom’s friend, which speaks of the moment of sexual union.

The aesthetic of Les Noces

Stravinsky originally conceived of the ballet as a modernist work - a rumbustious Joycean collage depicting a Russian village wedding. Nijinska added a searing gloss of her own – that this marriage was “an act of immolation”, in which personal inclination had no place. The choreography could scarcely make this plainer, with the dancers virtually anonymised in Nijnska’s efficient collectivisation of their bodies. Nijinska aimed to lift the corps de ballet to a “higher artistic level in which the whole action would be expressed”. There would be no soloists; rather, all would be moulded in one throughout the movement. The betrothed girl and her friends would be bound together in common expression; similarly the groom and his friends. The parents would be secondary characters, “virtually blanks”

The characters are almost anonymised (they are named only by the chorus – Nastasya, the bride, and Khvétis, the groom). Because the singers do not always sing the same characters, the bride’s and groom’s identities are fragmented and made mere symbols, or even ciphers, swept along in the collective celebration of an overwhelming social necessity. Like the score and libretto, the choreography is something of a collage in its own right with the action of the individuals, in Nijinska’s words, “not explained by themselves as individuals, but by the whole.”

The aesthetic of Les Noces is spare. This is even true of the music, originally conceived for a large orchestra. The set is minimal; dancers wear simple costumes evoking both peasant and practice dress. In Les Noces, “design is fate” with the dancers’ individualities subsumed by geometry, as the choreographic tide aggregates them in pyramids, phalanxes and mounds. Bride and groom alike are almost passive in their own fate and have no solos. The mass-groupings

“No question of love entered into it. How can it be possible for two such creatures to feel rejoicing?”
Bronislava Nijinska

are all important. In Nijinska’s words, “no question of love entered into it. How can it be possible for two such creatures to feel rejoicing?”

Nijinska had refused to accept Nathalie Goncharova’s original designs, dismissing them as more apt to an extravagant opera about Boyars, than to a peasant wedding - altogether “impossible for a ballet.” Diaghilev and Goncharova relented. Nijinska had overturned the Ballet Russes’ artistic committee approach; the first time a choreographer had done so. Simplicity was all - décor and costumes were strictly functionalist and accented anonymity. Later, Nijinska wrote: “Goncharova fell in completely with my ideas”. Goncharova did make one decisive intervention, the insistence on brown rather than blue costumes

For the American critic, Edwin Denby, writing in 1936, the ballet recalls the ‘didactic heroics’ of the early nineteen-twenties. The downward thrust of the bodies, he wrote, gave them “a sense beyond decoration” and the conventional pyramid at the end (in which the Best Man sits on the shoulders of a cluster of five dancers) that of “a heroic extreme, of a real difficulty.” Other writers of the time were bemused. Even HG Wells, approving as he was, wrote of the ‘amusing’ and ‘delightful display’. It was Andre Levinson in his hostility who most nearly grasped Les Noces’ intent (Levinson had spent some time in Soviet Russia), castigating the closing scene (celebrated later by Denby) as “a sort of practicable stage property constructed with flesh and blood (with)…the living man reduced to the pathetic emptiness of a mannequin.

Questions of Movement

The Royal Ballet’s completed score of Les Noces has a special shorthand particular to the work (with complex notation for movements such as ‘small handbag’, denoting Nijinska’s broken English for ‘small and back’). Unlike a typical Benesh ballet score, it needs to state throughout that feet are parallel. The introduction to the score reads:

“Les Noces is a representation of a typical peasant wedding in pre-Soviet Russia. The dancers do not portray individual people but a typical bride and groom. All the dancers should maintain totally blank facial expressions throughout. The style is not balletic. It is heavy and strong, both for men and for women. The feet are never pointed but are held in a bad pointe, when off the floor – i.e. they should not dangle loosely. Throughout the score this symbol will be known as 'small handbag'. Dancers should maintain totally blank facial expressions”.


Royal Ballet's production of Les Noces
Photograph © BBC

Nijinska’s use of pointe was a milestone, not merely in that Les Noces was the first Diaghilev ballet in which all woman dancers wore pointe shoes, but also in that it asserted the adaptability of pointe as a means of expression. With Les Noces and with Nijinska’s next work Les Biches, the American dance historian Lynn Garafola writes, began the “reclassicizing of avant-garde ballet”

Les Noces runs counter to the Petipa aesthetic in its turn from hierarchy and in its preference for the dynamic of movement over pose and position. Diaghilev’s recent London staging of Petipa’s Sleeping Princess may well have reinforced Nijinska’s intent. She saw it as an embarrassing retreat from the Ballets Russes’ founding principles – ‘an absurdity, a dropping into the past’

Feminist interpretations

Feminist dance scholarship has focused on Nijinska, not merely because of the content of her ballets, but also because she is one of a handful of women choreographers of her time. According to the feminist critic Sally Banes, Nijinska introduces feminism to the ballet stage, with woman’s image, balletically represented, finally coinciding with her social reality Lynn Garafola is more explicit, observing in Nijinska’s ‘stabbing pointe’ an intimation of the violence of the marital bed. Les Noces is not the idealisation of marriage (Walter Bagehot’s “brilliant edition of a universal fact”) found in Firebird or Sleeping Beauty, but ballet’s first expression of its bleaker realities.

For Sally Banes, Nijinska appears to break with Sacre, or even to answer it, by interpolating resistance to the ritual. She traces an evolution in the representation of woman in the Ballets Russes works from the supernatural ‘other’ of The Firebird, to the sacrificial victim of Sacre, to the woman in context of Les Noces. For both Firebird and Sacre, Banes suggests, woman represents a political metaphor: monarchy or the nation, while in Les Noces, she represents herself and her class. “Nijinska’s modernism”, Banes writes, “distances the bride’s point of view from that of the other characters, allowing her gloomy inner life to cast the entire festivity into shadows. Les Noces is a watershed work, obdurately shifting the terms of the ballet wedding’s significance from the male to the female perspective.”

Music and Choreography

Les Noces was longer in gestation than any of Stravinsky’s other works, and, according to Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s close associate, has traces of autobiography. He writes: “The lament in the epithalamium at the end of Svadebka is as much for the loss of Holy Mother Russia as for the virginity of Nastasia Timofeyvna.”

Originally conceived as a work for a 150-player orchestra, it was finally scored for four pianos, and soloist singers, recalling the ‘folk orchestra’ of a Russian peasant wedding. Stravinsky’s process of artistic assimilation reflects a shift from his Russian works and towards neoclassicism. Although Les Noces embodies elements of both, it exemplifies the mechanical precision of the 1920s aesthetic and its fascination with emerging sound technologies. According to Robert Craft, the volume of sound in Stravinsky’s later versions remained quite small with the third and fourth pianos not being added until the final score.


"At the Bridegroom's House" from the Kirov's production of Les Noces
Photograph © Valentin Baranovsky

Rhythmically the work is testing for its performers, with frequent changes from phrases on the musical pulse to others on the half-pulse, notably at the beginning of the second scene for the Bridegroom and his friends. Although usually sung in Russian, Paris Opera Ballet performs a French language version and Stravinsky abandoned a planned English translation. Nijinska thought it ‘absurd’ to make the choreography conform strictly to the asymmetries of the score. Instead she devised ‘choreographic bars’, running across several bars of music, which ‘submitted always to the sonorities of the music’. Nijinska’s daughter Irina told Millicent Hodson that the Ballets Russes dancers beat out the choreographic rhythms to the rhythms of the language, not the music. “Irina danced out the little steps on parallel pointe. They actually learnt the steps to the syllables of the scenario in Russian. When they do those little tendus, they don’t count. They do it to language syllable by syllable.”

Stravinsky insisted on the impossibility of a translation of the sound-sense of Les Noces. Even if it were possible, it would be ‘through a glass darkly’, according to Noel Goodwin. This makes it all the more surprising that at the original Royal Ballet performances the text was sung in English translation.

Les Noces and the Royal Ballet

With the passing of the Ballets Russes, Les Noces was almost lost to memory. It survived only because it had made a powerful impression on the young Frederick Ashton. He decided to restore it when he became artistic director of the Royal Ballet in the 1960s. Les Noces was acclaimed by a new generation. One of the Ballets Russes survivors,

“I think it’s the only ballet that has survived in revival, really survived. With the others, one feels that so much is lost”
Lydia Sokolova

Lydia Sokolova told John Drummond: “It is the only ballet of its time that has survived in revival, really survived. With the others one feels that so much is lost.”

Christopher Newton, who notated and staged the work for the Royal Ballet, has danced in several Les Noces casts: in the original production as one of the Groom’s friends, and, in later productions, as the Bride’s father. Work began on the Benesh score five years after the original Royal Ballet production, when Newton returned to the Company to stage the work. The score, substantially assembled in tandem with Liz Cunliffe, was finally completed last year by Harriet Castor. Irina Nijinska, the choreographer’s daughter, used the embryonic Benesh score, begun by Newton, when she staged Les Noces for Paris Opera Ballet. The Royal Ballet’s score has a strong claim to being the most authoritative record, backed as it is by a film made by Edmée Wood in 1967 and Bob Lockyer’s television version in 1978. A subsequent score was created by the choreologist Juliet Kando in October 1981 in tandem with Irina Nijinska.

“Nijinska explained nothing, communicating her intentions by gesture and feel, with the company learning by osmosis”

This was to mark Oakland Ballet’s first performance of Les Noces; at the same time, Jerome Weiss created a Laban score.

Nijinska explained nothing, communicating her intentions by gesture and feel, with the company learning by osmosis. She used few words: ‘yes it was right’ or ‘no it was wrong’. She literally pushed people to where she wanted them. The actual grammar of Les Noces was not altogether alien to the Royal Ballet. In 1966, the company, schooled as it was in Ashtonian technique, was well accustomed to a movement style that, while grounded, was also fleet. Ashton may, of course, have absorbed this from Nijinska.

Rehearsing the work, Nijinska insisted on the qualities of weight and heaviness. Instead of language, she grunted and used her body to demonstrate to the dancers what she required. Nijinska was very exacting about the style, about Les Noces’ friezes, and carriage of the head, hands and body. Several patterns were asymmetric. If dancers

“When Gerd Larsen, the Bride’s mother in the first Royal Ballet production, attempted to enlarge her character with facial expression, Nijinska reprimanded her: ‘no emotion, no emotion, no emotion”

queried this, her response (as to many of their other questions) was “No-no-no: this is not Swan Lake” When Gerd Larsen, the Bride’s mother in the first Royal Ballet production, attempted to enlarge her character with facial expression, Nijinska reprimanded her: ‘no emotion, no emotion, no emotion’. She similarly insisted that bride and groom in the ‘cell scene’ at the ballet’s close must have no facial expression. No facial muscles should move, she insisted; emotion must come purely from within.

Despite its success in London, the ballet was poorly received in New York when the Royal Ballet performed it at the Metropolitan Opera a year later. New York City Ballet were simultaneously performing Jerome Robbins’ version at the State Theater. The Robbins version is more theatrical and the New York audience preferred it to the bleak aesthetic of Nijinska’s original. Interestingly the same four pianists, singers and chorus performed for both companies. Having performed with NYCB at the State Theatre, they then made their way across town to the Metropolitan Opera House to accompany the Royal Ballet.

Issues of authenticity and meaning

Dance, of necessity, allows more performance latitude than the other arts, without overly worrying about compromise to a work’s identity. This is notably true of the 19th century classics, but less so of the works of a 20th century choreographer, such as George Balanchine. Les Noces is an interesting case: in 1966 did Nijinska mount a restoration, a revival, or even a reconstruction? When Lydia Sokolova suggested that the ballet ‘really really survived’ in revival, was this because Nijinska reproduced her original 1923 version in 1966, or because she powerfully evoked the original? It is impossible to tell.

History is a social and political construction, which, at best, approximates to ‘what really happened’. This is not to say that the past is beyond access. Nijinska’s 1966 restaging of Les Noces for the Royal Ballet is a source of the highest quality, reinforced as it is by the existence of a contemporaneous rehearsal film in the Royal Opera House archive. There are other sources; the Benesh score and the memories of dancers from the 1966 cast, many still living and some still involved with the Royal Ballet. But difficulties arise with the ballet’s transmission to a new generation. The past may be accessed, but cannot be lived. No records, however excellent, can bridge that ontological gap.

Those who stage the ballet in future will need to address what it means to ‘pass on’ a ballet such as Les Noces in its integrity. Dancers are trained differently, 40 years on. Can the Royal Ballet reproduce any longer the aesthetic that Nijinska intended? And would it matter to today’s audiences if they could not? This is where the issue of latitude is crucial.

Early music scholars have already rehearsed these debates. Richard Taruskin dismisses the ‘search for authenticity’ as folly and any attempt to ‘realise the author’s intentions’ as equally misguided. There were five Stravinsky recordings of Sacre. Which is authoritative, Taruskin asks. In ballet, it might be equally asked which of Petipa’s five versions of La Bayadère were authoritative? Nancy Reynolds of the Balanchine Foundation takes a pragmatic view of the issue: “What Balanchine did was history and fair game for exploration in any way we choose.”

The audience perspective too is important. The 1966 Royal Ballet production of Les Noces was at the height of the Cold War. Nijinska’s pyramids will have confirmed many audience members in their preconceptions of the Soviet Union, its totalitarian nature and the eclipse of the individual. A young audience coming to Les Noces in 2003 would be highly unlikely to view it in this way. For the notator Muriel Topaz, literal (or imitative ‘Mickey Mouse’) stagings can fail to evoke the real artistic intent behind a work. Instead, she suggests, the person staging a revival should grapple with the prevailing ideas when a work was originally made. Topaz concedes this: “It is inconceivable that a strong restaging will radically depart from the actual sequences the choreographer invented or put together”. Just as English National Opera is staging Berlioz’s The Trojans in a contemporary urban setting, might Nijinska’s choreography be conceivably detached from its 19th century Russian landscape and, with integrity, be situated in the 21st century? Nijinska’s grammar is so sui generis that it might very well survive a transposition in time and background. New readings of Les Noces might elaborate its feminist subtexts. Perhaps they might be detached from the marital context and become a choreographic reflection on men and women in organisations. Would it still be Nijinska’s work? Arguably yes – as long as the production reflected her original choreographic signature.

Productions on Video

There are two commercial video recordings of Nijinska’s Les Noces. Paris Opera Ballet’s version (1991) was staged by Irina Nijinska and directed by Colin Nears (“under studio conditions”). A BBC/Royal Ballet version was


The Consecration of the Bride: The Braid
from the Royal Ballet's production of Les Noces

Photograph © BBC

recorded in 2001 at the Royal Opera House. Bob Lockyer’s 1978 recording for the BBC is not available commercially. Lockyer filmed the Royal Ballet cast at Ealing Studios over three and a half days, with individual dancers placed to allow for highly detailed shots. Filming took place section by section. The cameras were on tracks, and like the cast, could be moved. The work was filmed ‘front on’. As a result, Lockyer’s film renders very faithfully the architecture of Nijinska’s choreography.

The 2001 Royal Ballet version was filmed at the Royal Opera House under restricted circumstances. The director, Ross MacGibbon, had three ‘passes’ at a live performance, using immovable cameras at a distance from the stage. Sustained frontal filming, using cameras positioned at the back of the Opera House, would have lacked depth of field. Instead MacGibbon interspersed frontal images with a series of side shots, introducing the crucial third dimension. “The steps look better from the front”, he acknowledged. “But perhaps there is a scene downstage camera left, which is interesting, and a nice foreground to the person doing the arabesque. The trade-off is “it’s a nice shot for television”, against whether it will work sufficiently for the dance to make sense of the architecture. But at the front you lose the power of the frame”.

Both video versions destabilise in different ways Nijinska’s intended aesthetic; the MacGibbon version ‘smooths’ the work, breaking with the relentlessness of its frontal quality. Although Paris Opera Ballet’s version was filmed in a theatre “under studio conditions”, is not as relentlessly ‘frontal’ as the BBC 1978 version. It is sung in French, arguably breaking with the intended relationship between the steps and the Russian libretto. There were further difficulties with the cast who visibly struggled with Nijinska’s use of parallel pointe, and seemed to slip into fifth position.

Contested claims

Until recently only the Paris Opera Ballet’s version of Les Noces was commercially available. The critic Robert Greskovic thought it reliable because Irina Nijinska had staged it. She has cast a shadow across the Royal Ballet’s interpretation arguing that its Benesh score (the embryonic version, which she herself has used, but which has since been completed) lacks important information about dancers’ heights. She also criticised its lack of information on emotion and on expressions of the movement. When the Royal Ballet performs the work, there may be an element of ‘tacit knowledge’. Notes with the completed score indicate that there is to be ‘no emotion’. But there is a lack of elaboration of the score (no prose notes). Unless the ‘tacit knowledge’ of a company, with its memories and muscle memories can become ‘explicit knowledge’, it may indeed be difficult to transmit a heritage in all its vibrancy.

‘Beware relatives’, is a frequent warning. They may have a malign affect on the transmission of an artistic heritage. Irina Nijinska is a special case. She danced in the 1933 production, and assisted her mother both when she staged Les Noces for Colonel de Basil’s company in New York, and when she staged the work in 1970 at the Teatro della Fenice in Venice. She could undoubtedly claim important ‘tacit knowledge’ of her own and it must have been a useful addition to the Royal Ballet Benesh score, to which she acknowledges a debt. Interviewed for Ballet Review in Spring 1992, she said, “I basically used the same original Nijinska choreography my mother used when staging the work for the Royal Ballet in 1966.”

The Kirov’s Les Noces derives from the 1981 production, which Irina Nijinska mounted for the Oakland Ballet. This was the first American company to perform the work and it used a reduced cast of thirty-six, as against the forty-two dancers who were cast in Bronislava Nijinska’s Royal Ballet production. It was at Oakland Ballet that Howard Sayette, who stages the Kirov version, learnt the work and the Nijinskaya Trust has since given him the rights to stage this version for other companies.

On the evidence, there is an eloquent case for the authority of the Royal Ballet’s performances and records. Nonetheless, this is a crucial time for its custody of that heritage. The generation that received Les Noces from Nijinska is edging into retirement and into forgetfulness. Its recently completed score is the work of a young choreologist. The danger is this: that with increasing gaps between performances, that ‘tacit knowledge’ and muscle memory of the work may be lost with the resulting loss of the vital third dimension. Although there were frequent performances of Les Noces during Ashton and MacMillan’s directorships, its appearance since then has been

Les Noces belongs to that much rarer category of ballets, which have a meaning and vitality not only for their own period, but for all foreseeable time”
James Monaghan

sporadic, with performance gaps from 1984 to 1991 and again from 1991 to 2001. The Royal Ballet will be giving it again in May 2004.

In 1966 James Monaghan of the Dancing Times wrote that Les Noces belonged to “that much rarer category of ballets, which have a meaning and vitality not only for their own period, but for all foreseeable time.” As time passes, meanings must be unlocked. Les Noces in 2103 will not be a facsimile of Les Noces in 1923 or 1966. That would not be possible, and might not make sense even if it were. The vitality of Nijinska’s work will depend on the verve with which future dancers interpret it and make it their own.

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