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Century-old ballet still pushing boundaries

Heike Liss
Sonsheree Giles, Was It A Dream I Loved

One hundred years ago, on a late May evening in Paris, an 11-minute ballet so scandalized audiences that it’s still making waves today.

“Afternoon of a Faun” was choreographed by then-23-year-old Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes. The dancers were barefoot and the angular movements of the dance rejected the formal constraints of classical ballet. Then there was the issue of the subject matter, which was overtly sexual in a way that audiences of the time had never seen. 

The ballet was based on a poem by Stephen Mallarmé, and had a simple plot: the faun, a mythical half-human, half-goat character, sees some nymphs, mythical sexy maidens, and pursues them. He does not achieve his objective, but one nymph drops her scarf as they all run away. At the end of the ballet, the faun lays the scarf on the ground and slowly lowers himself down. Then, as Oakland choreographer Sonsheree Giles describes, “He thrusts his pelvis into the scarf in a really dramatic moment and throws his head back, and opens his mouth wide.”

Giles has been thinking deeply about Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun” for about five years. This weekend, her dance theater group, this sweet nothing, will premiere “Was It A Dream I Loved”, a performance inspired by Nijinsky’s work.

Video artist Heike Liss will project both recorded images and real-time drawings on the walls and performers. She says she drew inspiration from her home surroundings. “We were all very interested in working locally, site-specific,” she says. “So I really wanted to get all my footage from around Oakland and, at the same time, referencing that original piece.”

Composer Caroline Penwarden has created a live musical score for the work. She says she was inspired by the original ballet’s fantastical elements and its blending of internal and external landscapes. “It was very much about nature, but also this dream space, this fantasy space,” she says.

Choreographer Sonsheree Giles says she admires the formal elements of Nijinsky’s original work, but she is equally interested in the story’s sexual content. “It was the first modern ballet and it was incredibly controversial and scandalous because it was the first time that anyone had simulated masturbation onstage,” she explains. “So it was taboo and caused an uproar. And I find that fascinating.”

Audiences in 1912 were shocked at the nymphs’ bare feet and the faun’s thrusting pelvis, but today’s theatergoers barely bat an eyelash at those things. Liss says the collective is not out to shock people, but it does want to challenge conventional thinking.

“I think what’s interesting – and it’s kind of shocking that this is still interesting now – the fact that our faun is a woman,” she says. This faun is “sexually proactive, a little aggressive, going after it. I think that in itself is still so taboo or complicated,” says Liss.

Dancer Lisa Bufano, who gracefully embodies this “sexually proactive” faun, also happens to be a double amputee. She and Giles dance for part of the performance on custom-made stilts made from curvaceous, Queen Anne-style table legs. The show actually includes several dancers with disabilities.

Composer Penwarden says that although audiences today may seem more sophisticated than those of 100 years ago, there are still boundaries to be pushed. She notes that sexual and gender stereotypes are still very present. “Even the element of having people consider people with disabilities and the sexuality around all of that,” she says. “We’re not really trying to be political, but there’s something inherently fascinating and challenging to people in how they respond to this.”

Many artists have referenced and adapted “Afternoon of a Faun” over the years. From Jerome Robbins’ 1953 version for American Ballet Theater, to Freddie Mercury’s unitarded homage in the video for Queen’s “I Want to Break Free”, to Giles and her collaborators here in Oakland, there is something about this piece – even a century later – that continues to intrigue.

Giles has certainly found much fodder for artistic inquiry in the original work and its history. “There’s this form and classicism there, and beauty, and controversy and scandal, and so I think it attracts us to continue to look at and examine and think about and rework,” she says.

At a rehearsal, dancers sway and roll across the space – in bare feet or on wheelchair wheels. The faun stirs, and stretches her sensuous, footless legs. Giles and Penwarden discuss fine adjustments to the musical score as Liss hunches over her laptop, hooked up to multiple projectors and a computer drawing pad. As much as these artists have drawn inspiration from Nijinsky’s original work, they are very much in the present moment, making something all their own.