Classical ballet is full of third-act weddings. With the bad guys disposed of, plot complications untangled, and everyone matched to the proper partner, they don their best tutus and tiaras for a grand party that spells happily ever after. Bronislava Nijinska’s first choreography for the celebrated Diaghilev Ballets Russes, in 1921, was a revival of the 19th century's most majestic tale of love and royal succession, The Sleeping Beauty. Her second big work for Diaghilev, Les Noces, in 1923, overturned the whole kaboodle and in the process launched the Ballets Russes into its last years as the leading producer of ballet modernism.
DEEPER REALITIES: Les Noces strips away the finery and the flattery of ballet’s wedding conventions.
Boston Ballet staged this groundbreaking work of strangeness and emotional truth for a stingy six performances last week, hardly enough to let either the dancers or the audience savor its tremendous challenges and rewards. Les Noces pictures a wedding in an indeterminate past of the Russian countryside. The occasion in Raymonda act three, which opened the company’s “An Evening of Russian Ballet” program, is set in a royal court of mediæval Hungary. The audience raved about the 19th century’s Raymonda and cheered its head off for a package of Imperial and Soviet Russian trifles that are usually reserved for encores and festive galas. It greeted Nijinska's masterpiece with dutiful appreciation.
Les Noces strips away the finery and the flattery of ballet’s wedding conventions and gets to deeper realities. Nijinska staged the nuptials as a turning point for a whole community, not just the bride and groom. She had spent nearly a decade in Russia before joining Diaghilev in France, learning her choreographic craft among the constructivist experiments of the early Soviet period, collaborating with the avant-garde artist Alexandra Exter, and absorbing new ideas in theater and cinema. Les Noces is both a collectivist work and a classical one.
Depersonalized, monolithic, and severe, like Byzantine religious ikons, the dance is all massed movement and tightly packed group poses. The bride (Karine Seneca on opening night) stands still for the entire first section as her friends surround her and eventually drape her with long ropes symbolizing her hair, which must be cut short at the end of her maidenhood. The Groom (Roman Rykine) solemnly takes leave of his friends, his parents. He stands in the center of the men's chorus as they circle him with downward-swooping leaps.
The scene changes, and we see the wedding couple and their parents seated in a room above the ensemble, who celebrate with raucous but organized dances. The bride and groom meet for the first time, embrace deliberately, bid goodbye to their parents, and are led into the bridal chamber.
There’s no emoting or expression except for these few deliberate gestures of embracing, blessing, farewell, but in the very stillness of the characters amid turbulent activity, you imagine their thoughts. Things we all feel at weddings but aren't supposed to admit: loss, apprehension, even panic.
Driving all the action is Igor Stravinsky’s harsh and monumental score for singers (the New World Chorale and soloists Margaret O'Keefe, Gale Fuller, Ray Bauwens, and Aaron Engebreth), four pianos, and percussion. Solo exclamations break into a throbbing regular pulse, and a triumphant bell tolls above the final tableau.