A century of Fauns

The editor of Le Figaro did not hold back. Reviewing the premiere of Nijinsky’s L’Après midi d’un Faune, he massacred the ballet under the page one headline “Un Faux Pas”.

The movements of the faun were “filthy and bestial in their eroticism” while the ballet itself was “loathsome, indecent, never to be accepted by the public…and greeted with the booing it deserved”.

Nijinsky’s mentor and lover, Serge Diaghilev, relished the attack, rolling up his perfumed cuffs to fight back with a testimonial from Auguste Rodin who compared Nijinsky’s form and beauty with antique frescoes and sculpture. In short, he was “the ideal model whom one longs to draw and sculpt”.

Rodin’s opinion prevailed. The Ballets Russes notched up another scandalous success and the most revolutionary ballet of the early 20th century sold out the Châtelet theatre as Parisians rushed to see what the fuss was about.

This year marks the centenary of Nijinksy’s work, one that has inspired numerous reconstructions, deconstructions and re-inventions from a host of choreographers, playwrights and filmmakers.

The tale of a faun – half-goat, half man – awakened from his languid afternoon reverie – was a poetic fantasy that was simple in its structure, radical in its rejection of everything that had gone before on the dance stage and shocking in the final moment of ecstasy as the faun lowers his body onto a nymph’s silk scarf.

It was Nijinsky’s choreographic debut, and, like any first novel, it was “a work of adolescent sexual awakening”, wrote the dance historian, Lynn Garafola.

Faun was also a rejection of conventional ballet. There were no virtuoso steps. The dancers walked in profile, resembling the bas-relief of a Grecian vase and their hands were held in a flat position, palms opened to the audience.

A hundred years after the premiere, a German choreographer and an Australian dancer will bring a new Faun to the Sydney Festival in their own investigation of what the work means now.

Called Anatomy of an Afternoon, the solo work depicts Paul White as an animal lazing in the afternoon sun but ready to pounce when he senses a hidden predator.

The choreographer, Martin del Amo, describes White as “very muscular and – in a good way – chunky. But he still has this absolute flexibility and an ability to move in a very tiny, languid and fluid way”.

In film taken during rehearsals, White’s control and muscularity are evident from every angle as he crawls, slithers, revolves and pads across the stage.

The charismatic quality of White, an award wining Australian dancer now based in Berlin, must have been one reason why del Amo’s work appealed to the Sydney Festival programming team.

“Paul has a bit of the star power, at the moment”, says del Amo. “In the film industry if you can attach a star to a project, it makes it possible.”

In the contemporary dance world “we don’t have stars”, or not very often.

Anatomy of an Afternoon began as a research project whose collaborators were Mark Bradshaw, composer of the film, Bright Star, and academic Amanda Card, the inaugural chairwoman of Critical Path, Sydney’s choreographic research and development centre.

As a dance historian, Card was well aware of all the Fauns that have gone before, beginning with Nijinksy’s inspiration, Debussy’s PrĂ©lude Ă  l’après-midi d’un faune, based in turn, on the poem by StĂ©phane MallarmĂ©.

Debussy described his score as a “very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem…a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon”.

Every generation seems to give birth to a new wave of Fauns including the solo performances created by Serge Lifar and Maurice Bejart. In the 1950s, the American choreographer, Jerome Robbins, set his Afternoon of a Faun in a ballet studio, where a man and a woman see one another’s reflections in an imaginary mirror, and, for a moment, see one another face to face.

In the 1980s, Barry Moreland and Graeme Murphy created their own Australian Fauns while more recently, the mythological creature has inspired choreographers from Britain, (Tim Rushton), Sweden (Pontus Lidberg), Belgium (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) and Germany, (Raimund Hoghe).

This year in Brisbane, the Hamburg Ballet will present John Neumeier’s ballet, Nijinsky, in which the Faun dances with Nijinsky and his wife, Romola.

The Faun has also found his way into drama and movies, with the most peculiar manifestation being a 1984 Czechoslovak movie about an aging Don Juan, The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun.

Del Amo’s interpretation is not only an investigation into the Faun’s past, but also a way for the choreographer to move on from the solo performances he has given during his last few years in Australia.

He empathises with Kate Champion, the choreographer and former solo performer, who said, “you can only mine yourself for material for so long…She became interested in other people’s stories, and histories”.

In his new work, del Amo has shifted some of the emphasis from the faun to the time in which he exists – the afternoon.

“Paul grew up in Queensland and talked about the summer afternoons when everything is very lazy and languid, and about the afternoon as a period of potential and promise, what might be later”.

Del Amo asked White to study animals in the zoo, “to observe one animal for half an hour, then a whole pack, and how they related to one another, then, while observing, concentrate on the other sensations, the smell, the temperature”.

There will be no traces of Debussy’s music and no Nijinsky-like costume details such as brown patches on flesh coloured tights, along with a gold wig. Instead, White will be wearing a T-shirt and trousers which he will casually discard to reveal only a pair of briefs.

Graeme Murphy once wrote in his Faun program notes: “To me the Faun has always represented that spirit which is unbound by conventional morals, disciplines or social and political conditionings.

“The Faun is poetic and instinctive. He is an endangered species – threatened by shrinking Arcadia, expanding social taboos and a distressing belief in his very existence”.

The idea of a faun might be endangered, but as a ghost who haunts the dance stage, it seems he will never fade away.

Anatomy of an Afternoon is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, January 9-11 and January 13-16.

This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 7 January 2011.

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Paul White, Anatomy of an Afternoon

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild rehearsing Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. Photo © Erin Baiano

David Hallberg and Stella Abrera, Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. Photo © Marty Sohl

Vaslav Nijinsky, L’après-midi d’un faune