Friday, June 4, 2010

Sleuthing Ballets Russes Film Footage

Meissen Figure - Harlequin of the Commedia dell'arte

Not long ago and as you do (not), I was looking at a compilation of some early French newsreel footage titled 'Le Music-Hall Français: La Belle Otéro, Jane Marnac, Mistinguett with Chevalier and Mayol, 1913'.

About a third of the way through, there is a sequence, introduced in French by the talking head as a preview of the
'Nouvelle Saison des Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev'. Two dancers perform a tiny section of 'Le Carnaval'. Certainly, the costumes worn are those of the two central characters of this ballet: Columbine and Harlequin.

The question then for me was who are these dancers?

Some background.

Richard Buckle
states in 'Nijinsky' (Simon and Schuster, NY. 1971:129) that Mikhail Fokine was asked on 20 February 1910 to create a ballet for a charity ball in the Pavlovsk (Pavlov Hall), Saint-Petersburg.

'Le Carnaval' was choreographed to music based on Robert Schumann's 'Carnaval', orchestrated by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakovv, Liadov, Tcherepnin, and Arensky. The libretto as well as the choreography were by Fokine and the sets and costumes by Leon Baskt.

The ballet premiered in the Pavlovsk (Pavlov Hall), Saint-Petersburg, on 5 March 1910.

While it is certain that Tamara Karsavina danced the role of Columbine ...

Tamara Karsavina as Columbine in 'Le Carnaval'

Tamara Karsavina as Columbine in 'Le Carnaval' 1910

... there is a great deal of dispute about who danced that of the Harlequin.

Fokine in his autobiography said that it was Leonid Leontiev.

Karsavina has stated that it was Fokine ...

Mikhail Fokine and Vera Fokina in 'Le Carnaval'

... and Bronislava Nijinsky her brother, Vaslav ...

All of these dancers did at various times certainly performed the role.

The confusion has arisen from the fact that there was never prior notification of who was performing in any given ballet by the Imperial Ballet. So no records to clarify.

Buckle says (p.132) that the work was first presented by the Ballets Russes outside Russia at the Teater des Westens, Berlin on 20 May 1910 with Lydia Lopokova as Columbine and Leonid Leontiev as Harlequin. Karsavina was unavailable, dancing at the Coliseum in London.

The ballet, he continues, was first given in Paris at Theatre National de l'Opera on 4 June 1910 with Karsavina and Fokine. The roles then alternated between this pairing and Lopokova and Leontiev. The poster for the 7 June performance, for example, gives Karsavina and Fokine, with Nijinsky dancing in Scheherazade.

Ballets Russes Playbill for 7June 1910, Theatre National de l'Opera

It might seem Nijinsky did not dance the role in the first Paris season.

However, there two pieces of evidence to the contrary.

Boris Kochno, Serge de Diaghilev's last secretary, states in 'Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes' (Harper and Row. NY. 1970) in a section discussing the Paris premier that 'The success of Carnaval in Paris was due in large part to the brilliant execution of Fokine's choreography by Karsavina and Nijinsky' (p39), quoting Jean Cocteau's detailed description of Nijinsky's performance in 'Notes on the Ballet'.

And there are seven photographs dated 1910 (Roger Pryor Dodge Collection) of Nijinsky as Harlequin taken by Baron Adolf de Meyer in Paris.

Nijinsky was still dancing Harlequin in Paris in 1913 as there is an annotated and dated sketch by Jean Cocteau of the dancer making up for the role in his dressing room in the presence of the composer Igor Stravinsky.

The annotation is '1913. Stravinsky Nijinsky se [unintelligible] pour le Carnaval').

And it seems Nijinsky was still dancing the role in 1915 as there is an autographed and dated photograph (Souvenir de Waslaw Nijinsky 1915), which sold recently at Adam Andrusier Auotgraphs for ₤3950 ...

The dancer was even performing the role in 1916-7 when he briefly re-joined the Ballets Russes during their tour of the US, for example, in New York on 14 April and then during a Madrid season on their return to Europe.

And to throw in one more candidate just to really confuse matters,
Adolph Bohm performed the Harlequin role with the Ballets Russes over this period ...

Adolph Bohm as Harlequin in 'Le Carnaval' photographed by E.O. Hoppe 1913

So the question is who are the pair dancing in the tiny section of 'Le Carnaval' in this compilation of French newsreel footage of 1913?

I've looped the sequence five times so anyone who has got this far and is prepared to go even further can more easily study these two dancers ...

Of course the real question is is this the only extant film of famed Ballets Russes dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky?


  1. hello... hapi blogging... have a nice day! just visiting here....

  2. A couple of points:
    Leonid Leontiev created the role of Harlequin at St Petesburg's Pavlova Hall (Pavlovsk is a different place) in 1910. There is a photo of him with Karsavina in their original costumes taken shortly afterwards and shown in the book "Tamara Karsavina, Diaghilev's Ballerina".
    Nijinsky did not dance the role until Monte Carlo in 1911. All previous performances are documented as Leontiev and Fokine.

  3. This is actually Stanislas Idzikowski