Many historians consider World War I the inaugural event of the twentieth century. With respect to art history, 1914 is a somewhat late start. One could cite numerous cultural landmarks created closer to 1901. If however, art historians were to accept something closer to 1914, they would argue the twentieth century began a little more than a year before the guns of August were drawn. Were they to cite an exact time, date, location and event it would be the evening of May 29, 1913 in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, with the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), a ballet scored by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 -1950).
The Rite of Spring was conceived by Stravinsky in 1910 while finishing the score for his first ballet Fire Bird. Stravinsky describes the theme of The Rite of Spring as having come to him in a dream. “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite; sage-elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of Spring.” In 1911 Stravinsky contacted Nicholas Roerich a painter and specialist in pagan subject matter with whom he had worked on Fire Bird. Roerich sketched out the drama as follows: “Aside from this outline, no real plot was ever assigned to Stravinsky’s score. The work was divided in two parts, “The Adoration of the Earth (Day)” and “The Sacrifice (Night)”. The fourteen brief movements were given the simplest descriptive titles??”The Augurs of Spring”, “Games of the Rival Tribes”, “Procession of the Wise Elders”, “Glorification of the Chosen Victim”, “Sacrificial Dance” etc.”
The Rite of Spring still exemplifies a succes de scandal. Much of the audience considered the work an affront on every count. The aggressive rhythmic tumult and magisterial terror of Stravinksy’s score combined with Nijinsky’s disposition for movements that ignored the most rudimentary forms associated with classical ballet completely surprised the audience which consisted a who’s who of Parisian if not European cultural life. The evening’s events—the catcalls, the ensuing brawls between a conservative bourgeoisie and an entrenched Parisian bohemia, the raising of houselights, more catcalls, and more brawls amidst a ballet resumed to a nearly inaudible score performed by dancers stricken with fear—are captured in numerous eyewitness accounts the most famous belonging to Jean Cocteau. Apparently, the commotion subsided by the last movement and the gripping finale, Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen Victim), was performed uninterrupted.
Given her interest in issues of identity and the body, it is easy to see why Warsaw based photo and video artist Katarzyna Kozyra (b. 1963) would be drawn to The Rite of Spring. Her most recent work, also entitled The Rite of Spring, is based on the final movement of the original ballet. Of the original ballet’s themes—the awe inspiring, creative forces of nature, its cyclical aspect through the ritual of death and rebirth, and propitiation of nature’s destructive potential through sacrifice—Kozyra has chosen to explore one of its most elemental subtexts, aging and transformation, through a more literal examination of the human form. Kozyra’s Rite of Spring features elderly individuals performing Nijinsky’s bold choreography in a stop-animation sequence. The four and a half minute work is projected over nine screens featuring anywhere from one to three dancers. The screens are arranged to recreate the high drama of the original mystic circle in which the Chosen Victim performed the sacrificial dance.
Far from the youthful dancers in the original who relied heavily on make-up to play the role of wizened elders, Kozyra’s dancers are the real thing. They perform the work nude except for the occasional prosthetic genitalia or wig applied to the pubis. This allows women to assume the role of men and vice versa. The work was filmed using a ceiling-mounted camera, recording the dancers in stop-action sequences that were performed on the floor. With gravity suspended, the performers were able to execute Nijinsky’s gestures with all the effective intent of the original whose choreography consists of very strong, emblematic gestures which Stravinsky’s percussive heavy score no doubt demanded. Although Kozyra’s dancers on occasion exhibit a tender tremor, it is hard to discern if this is out of shame or fear of activating primeval forces that are life’s triumph over death. But overall, the dancer’s bodies are proudly displayed in a celebration of who they are as if the spark of youth, the seeds for both regeneration and transformation were sprouting from within.
Over the last two decades, photo and video-based work dealing with identity has challenged the physical and cultural immutability of socio- biological determinants such as race and gender. Treating the body semiotically, little if any of this work considered the physical realities of illness and aging. By taking into account such limits, Kozyra has consistently investigated issues of self and identity as they relate to both “otherness” and “wholeness.” Like many photo and video artist who disintegrate essentialist notions of self, Kozyra also uses role-playing. And like artists such as Cindy Sherman or Yasumasa Morimura, Kozyra engages with the issues of the body and identity through art historical motifs. Kozyra’s Olympia (1996) for example, is a photo and video self-portrait in which the artist poses as Manet’s Olympia. Although Kozyra assumes the same self-assured expression and posture as Manet’s prostitute, she depicts herself in a hospital gurney, hairless after having undergone chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease, an illness with which she was diagnosed in 1992. Although Kozyra’s Olympia is cloaked in the strategy of staged photography, the content of the work as generated by the polarity between beauty and illness lends it a greater affinity with the work of Hannah Wilke. For Kozyra, the point is neither to beautify nor transgress biological or physical determinants but to understand and project an image of our bodies (as is) into the photographic space of desire.
In her native Poland, Kozyra’s work has been steeped in controversy. The Pyramid of Animals (1993), the work she submitted to complete her graduate studies, consisted of a tier of four taxidermied animals—horse, dog, cat, rooster—one atop another in that order. Although Kozyra stated her intentions of raising issues of mortality and death in both a literal and metaphoric sense (the piece was based on a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm), The Pyramid of Animals instigated a moral outcry from numerous circles including animal rights activists and The Society of Polish Artists. In 1995 Kozyra completed Blood Ties, a four part photographic work in which the artist depicted herself and her sister whose lower right leg is deformed, against a bright red cross and a red crescent. Unlike the work of her Western counterparts which comments on identity as constructed through a matrix of signifiers codified by cinema and commercial photography, Kozyra’s work has attempted to address the harsh political realities of Eastern Europe and in the case of Blood Ties’ former Yugoslavia. As the artist has stated “I created this work in 1995 under the influence of events in former Yugoslavia. The symbols of the blood red cross and crescent are the symbols of humanitarian organizations that bring relief to persons in need of help. While making the piece I was thinking about the symbolic metaphor of fratricidal rivalry and struggle over ethnic and religious ideologies.” On a formal level, Blood Ties with its use of immediately recognizable religious symbols rendered in a highly charged red, recalls the earlier staged work of Andres Serrano. And like Serrano’s work it provoked similar reactions from public officials. Whereas the main board of the Polish Red Cross objected to her “misuse” of their sign, the media was shocked by the artist’s shameless use of her sister.
For Kozyra, beauty is clearly in the eye of the beheld. Our discomfort with our bodies translates directly into an inability to face issues of death and mortality. For a greater degree of comfort with our bodies as they are, whether defective or degenerating, Kozyra has also resorted to unabashed voyeurism. In Bathhouse (1997) and The Men’s Bathhouse (1999), Kozyra used a hidden camera to capture men and women in a state of utter familiarity with their bodies, a state from which to begin discussions of difference from self to self (woman to woman, man to man) as predicated on a gaze from self to other (woman to man or vice versa). Kozyra’s choice of Polish compatriot Vaslav Nijinsky as an art historical figure through whom to address such concerns underscores the fact that many of Nijinsky’s roles, whether choreographed for or by him, were an explicit exploration of gender, sexuality and exoticism. The photos of his performance as the Golden Slave in Scheherezade, the “Danse Siamoise” from Les Orientales and Le Spectre de la Rose all from 1910 and 1911 are certainly pause for thought in relation to the transgender antics of such figures as Jack Smith and Mario Montez or Marcel Duchamp in his guise as Rrose Sélavy.
Nijinsky’s career was very tragic and very brief, lasting between 1909 and 1917 when he began to go mad. In 1919 he was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and was institutionalized for the better part of the remainder of his life. Nijinsky won acclaim as the principal dancer in the Ballet Russe, the most influential troupe in Europe for the first two decades of the twentieth century. His roles in Les Sylphides, Scheherezade, Le Spectre de la Rose and Petrouchka made him a star. Nijinsky made his choreographic debut with the legendary The Afternoon of a Faun, quickly followed by Jeux. The former considered by many the beginning of modern ballet. The Rite of Spring was his third choreographic endeavor. As it relates to the exploration of gender and sexuality in his previous roles, Lincoln Kirstein in his book Movement and Metaphor has summarized the three 1912-1913 works as a trilogy of sexual development; “in Faune, adolescent self-discovery and gratification, in Jeux, homosexual discovery of another self or selves; in Le Sacre du Printemps, fertility and renewal of the race.” Of these three only The Afternoon of a Faun was documented to the extent that it can be said to exist in its original version. Although there were seven performances of the original Rite of Spring, when the Ballet Russe wanted to restage it seven years after its debut and after Nijinsky had left the company, no one could remember the choreography. It was revived in 1921 with new choreography by Léonide Massine. It was not until 60 years after its premiere that Millicent Hodson, dancer and dance scholar, working with art historian Kennneth Archer, attempted to reconstruct the original. Whereas they had great success in locating the original costumes (over 80 percent of them were found) reconstructing the original choreography proved more difficult. Hodson relied on drawings by Valentine Gross, an art student who made a great deal of figure studies from the original performance. Hodson also analyzed writings by Stravinsky, the critics, the dancers and Marie Rambert who had been Nijinsky’s assistant. Rambert kept detailed notes about each measure of choreography on a rehearsal score, which remained lost until 1984. This discovery enabled Hodson to reconstruct the work, which was then performed by the Joffrey Ballet in 1989.
It is surprising how quickly the original Rite of Spring became a canonical work. After World War I, Stravinsky’s score was performed regularly throughout Europe. In 1921 a British critic was perturbed by the fact that the furor surrounding the work’s debut seemed to have been altogether forgotten. And in 1941 Walt Disney used Stravinsky’s score in his animated work Fantasia which ignored the theme of sacrifice in favor of presenting Spring as a metaphor for the world as it emerged from a protozoic prehistory. Such a narrative lends a literal dimension to Stravinsky’s musical innovation, eliminating something of the terror and mystery implied by pagan ritual whose superstitious underpinnings are an attempt to understand nature and invoke its transformative powers. It is this aspect of the original, the unsettling joy and fearless longing captured in Nijinsky’s choreography that Kozyra hopes to restore. Given the start of what promises to be a long and difficult winter, pagan sacrifices in the name of Yarilo might come as a welcome surprise for Chicagoans. Yarilo! Yarilo! We welcome thee with arms open wide. Let the Rite Begin!