'Afternoon of a Faun'

'Afternoon of a Faun'
Eugène Galien-Laloue: Le Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris

Who said ballet has to be boring? The most stimulating moment in ballet history surely must have been at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1912 when Nijinsky ended The Afternoon of a Faun by simulating masturbation in front of a full house. It caused a riot just as it was designed to do. Up till then his faun expresses a choreographed frenzy of erotic desire for the Nymph, but apparently no photos survive of the climactic moment. Choreography was by Nijinsky, the score Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by Debussy.

Diaghilev, whose Ballet Russes dominated European ballet from 1909 until his death in Venice in 1929, was always a great publicist - every new ballet had to cause an uproar. The images below are by one of his key artists and partners, Léon Bakst. The first is for The Afternoon of a Faun; the second is a costume sketch for The Red Sultana, which needless to say never made it into Schéhérazade (1910). It is not a costume design really, since it was painted after the fact for exhibition - after 1920.

Léon Bakst: Vaslav Nijinsky in "Afternoon of a Faun" (1912)
Léon Bakst: costume sketch for the ballet "Schéhérazade" (1925)

Bakst traveled to North Africa and studied with the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. For Gérôme's and other Orientalist paintings: here and here. Bakst's Russian Orientalist costume and set designs profoundly influenced the Japanese Takarazuka Revue and Hollywood films of the Twenties. (Back in 1906, one of Bakst's students was Marc Chagall.)

Curiously, the off-stage antics in the ballet world rarely ever rise to the same level of sexual passion and scandal as the on-stage world, whatever its insiders have to say, and they seem surprisingly chaste by comparison with the world of painting, literature and music.

Also see Mata Hari and Anna May Wong.