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August 5, 2009

Nijinsky 'dances' — 'L'après-midi d'un faune' (The Afternoon of a Faun)

Or does he?

In a June 29, 2009 "Talk of the Town" piece in The New Yorker, dance critic Joan Acocella reported on the appearance over the past year on YouTube of the first footage ever seen of Nijinsky dancing (above and below).

But Christian Comte, the French artist who calls himself "an alchemist in animated cinema" who posted the footage doesn't claim to have discovered archival film.

Read the story for yourself and decide if Comte's guilty of perpetrating a fraud, as some who've viewed the footage have commented, or instead has given us something "astonishing."


The Faun

Many of the makers of early-twentieth-century dance distrusted film; they thought that it made their art look toylike, foolish. As a result, there is no footage, for example, of Vaslav Nijinsky, who may have been the greatest dancer of the century. The fact that his career was so short—he went mad at twenty-nine—makes this void more painful. Couldn’t we have had even a glimpse?

Strange to say, we were recently offered one. Last July, a YouTube user posted what he called a film fragment of Nijinsky in his 1912 ballet “The Afternoon of a Faun.” Since then, the same source has added three more clips of the Russian dancer in “Faun,” plus one each of him in “The Spectre of the Rose,” “Scheherazade,” “The Blue God,” and “Les Orientales.” The eight segments add up to about three minutes.

These ballets are all Nijinsky vehicles from the early, fabled, took-Paris-by-storm period of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Most of them were hits, but none of them, today, are as important as “The Afternoon of a Faun,” the first ballet that Nijinsky choreographed and the only ballet of his that survives. In it, a little woodland creature (Nijinsky) spies a nymph bathing in a stream, chases her, catches her, loses her, and then consoles himself with her scarf. The ballet immediately became famous (indeed, notorious—Le Figaro denounced it as “filthy and bestial”), and in 1912 the fashion photographer Adolf de Meyer made a long, almost measure-by-measure record of it. Those gorgeous stills, because they were published in a book, were stamped on the brains of people who cared about Nijinsky. Now, suddenly, on YouTube, here they were again, except moving! It was like watching Atlantis rise from the sea.

And then, after a minute or so, it wasn’t. Weren’t these frames too close to the de Meyer photographs? Why was the camera moving in and out, a technique unknown in 1912?

Because, it turns out, these aren’t films. They are computer-generated artifacts, made by Christian Comte, a French artist who has a studio in Cannes. Reached the other day, Comte acknowledged his authorship. “These films are animations of photographs, achieved thanks to a process that I invented,” he said. “I work as an alchemist in animated cinema.” He uses still photographs and, by employing a computer to alter them—tilt a head, move an arm—fills in the gaps between successive shots. That’s why his “Faun” footage is so much longer than his other footage. He had all those de Meyer stills. This is basically no different from the way Steven Spielberg got the dinosaurs to run around the jungle in “Jurassic Park.”

Comte insists that he is not trying to pass off his Nijinsky clips as authentic films. His YouTube profile page opens with a statement that it is a “mad legend” that any film of Nijinsky dancing survives. Yet he goes on to call his postings “film fragments.” All of them display the date of each ballet’s première—1910, 1911, or 1912—but they do not explain that this is not also the date of the video.

The comments on YouTube suggest that viewers are interpreting Comte’s prevarications whichever way they want. Some people kiss Comte’s hands for unearthing, at last, footage of Nijinsky dancing: “Astonishing.” “C’est superbe! ” Others reproach him for perpetrating a fraud: “It is a disservice to the arts world to present this digital creation as a genuine film of Nijinsky. Please stop this charade.” And then there is a third group—the postmodernists, let’s call them—who know that Comte’s postings are fake but like them anyway and see no shame in them. “Play your magic,” a viewer writes to Comte. “That’s Art as well.”

For many, Nijinsky is not so much a dancer as an icon: of the misunderstood artist, of the mad genius, of the sacrificial homosexual. (He was Diaghilev’s lover.) People will take just about anything they can get of him. They want gold, but fool’s gold is O.K., too.

August 5, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Oh, who cares? I know that's not the point. I care, actually, and I'd give my upper left canine tooth (which needs a new crown anyway) to actually see Nijinsky dancing. It's kind of fun to see how people can fool around with the photographs & animation, and I have to agree -- that's art as well. I just love ballet, all the more due to suffering through several years of lessons in my youth, as did many, many middle-class girls of my era. (It most definitely was not my calling; I was a tap kid.)

But I'd really rather watch this:


It makes my heart leap!

Posted by: Flautist | Aug 5, 2009 6:17:27 PM

A couple of things: I began reading about the footage and thought, hey wait a minute, I have SEEN Nijinsky dance. At least to my memory I thought I had. Then I read further and realized that what I had actually seen where the sequences of Meyer photos in a book that my parents gifted me with when I was a child. My mind remembered them as a film sequence. Isn't that interesting? In any case, I watched the clip on my iphone first and possibly because of the size the screen, the film seemed more "real." Then I watched it on my laptop screen and it was quite obvious that the sequence is animated. Not only for the panning motion of the camera and the zoom shots but also because it looks too mechanical and in the shots of the women, the first lady in particular, seem during movements, as if they were drawn. I worked as a digital editor for 9 years and 4 as a 3-D graphic artist and I think, that I would have spotted as much without the benefit of the article above.

Still, who cares that it isn't real? That's Nijinsky and he is moving as he would have most likely moved. It looks so real and isn't that bloody wonderful? There's nothing wrong with Mr. Comte posting his work on-line or leaving the clarification a tad ambiguous. The whole controversy is just ridiculous if you ask me. Keep on Mr. Comte! Animate to your hearts content! I'm loving it.

Posted by: Milena | Aug 5, 2009 4:52:33 PM

Fool´s gold but compelling nevertheless.

Posted by: gina | Aug 5, 2009 4:51:14 PM

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