Ballet West Les Noces Review
March 26, 2023 | Guggenheim Museum – New York, NY, USA
I emerged from Guggenheim’s Works & Process presentation on Ballet West’s full-scale revival of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces enlightened by the academic conversation centered around a 100-year-old production. The discussion-structured program left my analytical instincts refreshed by the opportunity to re-evaluate the role of the critic and the spectator when approaching historical works.
By using live performance, archival video, and a panel including Nijinska scholar Lynn Garafola and Artistic Director Adam Sklute – moderated by Linda Murray – the thoughtful conversation encouraged me to enter the assessment of the reproduction of Les Noces – translated from Russian to English as The Wedding – with a pedagogical approach rather than a critical one.
The panel was nuanced with enjoyable moments of cheeky academic humor and was constructed with thought, care, and attention. No point dragged on longer than it should have, and the audience was able to engage with Nijinska’s work biographically, historically, and personally.
Sklute evaded Murray’s opening question of why a 100-year-old piece is relevant today – besides its centennial occurring this year – by going off on a rather long tangent on why Les Noces has a favorite place in his heart.
His anecdote was amusing to the niche ballet community in the audience, as he shared that he was shocked he was cast as the Groom despite only undertaking dance for a few weeks as a teen – only to learn the Groom does not do much besides stand still.
Despite evading the question, there is certainly something ceremonious, prideful, and impressive for Ballet West undertaking the restoration of a full-orchestra work composed by Stravinsky that requires a 40-member chorus, four soloists, four grand pianos, and percussion.
Garafola contributed that evaluating this restaging of Les Noces through a 21st-century lens may bring gender into a brighter spotlight.
The bride’s sections are mournful, as she is taken away from her family and required to cut her braids held in the hands of her female corps dancers, while the male’s sections are contrarily celebratory.
In the end, the bride and the groom are ceremoniously escorted into the bedroom to the sound of ringing bells, as the corps re-creates a pyramid motif and the bridge and groom are replaced by another – presumably unmarried – solo female and male.
Murray added that while Nijinska may not be a feminist – as described in the plot above, the Bride in Les Noces takes little action to maintain her agency but rather laments it – her choreography provides the feminine perspective of a bride in the 20th century.
Garafola replied: “Gender locks the Bride into her future.”
Ballet West Les Noces Presentation at the Guggenheim
Sklute brought six Ballet West dancers onstage to demonstrate various movement motifs from the four tableaus.
A braiding motif was at the forefront: reminiscent of the Bride’s braids, echoed by the weaving pas de bourrée pointe footwork of the female corps and the majestic pyramid shapes created by the bodies of the full cast.
Besides the irregular and difficult counts demanded by Stravisnky’s score, the dancers also demonstrated the positions of open or closed hands. The palm – open, flat, and exposed to the audience – conveys potential vulnerability; while the fist conveys pride or unity. Both gestures are devoid of personality.
The choreography lacks expression through the fingertips and the rigid unity of the corps is stripped of individuality.
The dancing - dated, ritualistic, flat, and angular, although the women still wore pointe shoes - was mostly in unison.
As mentioned in Sklute’s humorous anecdote about his first role as the Groom, the titular characters remain still and proud, while the corps carries the ballet with most of the dancing.
It feels irrelevant to comment on the originality of Nijinska’s choreography, as the Ballet West dancers are re-creating history through their limbs. However, Principal Artist Jordan Veit certainly stood out in a short solo he will dance in the official production as a potential groomsman (not noted by Nijinksa in any restaging program or notes), where he floated effortlessly through several technical parallel and turned-out pirouettes.
Garafola, Murray, and Sklute’s discussion found me reminiscent of a time in college, perhaps attending a favorite professor’s lecture with whom one may or may not have a subtle intellectual obsession.
While my unbiased eye would have initially turned my nose up at an opportunity to attend a 20th-century style production I may have considered outdated, the panel helped transform and educate my perspective. It was pleasant to engage with dance more productively than through a lens of criticism and more actively than as a passive spectator because of the structure of the Guggenheim Works & Progress panel.
Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City, will perform the full-scale production of Les Noces from April 14 – April 22.
Featured Photo for this Ballet West Les Noces review of Artists of Ballet West in Les Noces by Bronislava Nijinska at Works & Process at the Guggenheim, March 26, 2023. Photo by Erick Munari.
Who staged Les Noces for them? The photo at the top of the page looks subtly wrong.
Thank you for your observation, David! This photo was taken from the Works & Process where only six dancers came to NYC from Ballet West to represent the entire ensemble. The Guggenheim stage is quite small, and fills up quickly with even six dancers on it. Normally, the iconic pyramid shape would be created with additional dancers on either side.