Hair’s Weight Onstage: Braids in Les Noces’ “The Blessing of the Bride”

Les Noces, or the Wedding, premiered in June 1923 at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris. It was produced by Sergei Diaghilev, artistic director of the Ballets Russes, set to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Natalia Gontcharova designed the set and costumes, and Bronislava Nijinska—in whose influence on the piece we are mainly interested—choreographed the piece.  Nijinska was sister to the famous dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who inaugurated androgynous roles like a personified rose in Le Spectre de la Rose, choreographed the famously rabble-rousing Le Sacre du Printemps, and fell mentally ill at a young age to end his brief but illustrious career. For better or for worse, it was precisely this occurrence that opened up the space for Nijinska to take over for her brother, and to choreograph one of the earliest—if only—feminist ballets.

Les Noces was a piece in the works for ten years, eight of which were prior to Nijinska’s eventual involvement. Stravinsky had purchased a score of Russsian peasant wedding songs, as it was in vogue at this time to look to such origins of one’s culture for inspiration: some scholars have even termed the period one of “neoprimitivism” (Baer 32). The staging Diaghilev and Stravinsky had in mind was a joyous peasant celebration, and this tone was one which Nijinska fought from the beginning and successfully unraveled by the ballet’s premiere (Banes 108). For this paper, I have been working with a reconstruction of the piece, performed by the Royal Ballet in London in 2001. The performance DVD lists Nijinska as the sole choreographer, so we can rest assured it is quite close to the original.[1]

Nijinska’s vision is undoubtedly informed by her womanhood, as well as her prior experience as a ballerina in the Ballets Russes. This paper will exclusively consider one of many crucial innovations Nijinska brought to the stage: the use of hair, two ten-foot braids on either side of the future bride’s face, in the ballet’s first segment, “The Blessing of the Bride.” I argue that the braids function as a surrogate for Nijinska’s absence onstage: as a critique on marriage in society, classical tradition in ballet, and femininity in both. The images I am going to present to you cause me to move in and out of chronological order, as I untangle the symbolism of these braids.

Draped hair as the shackles of marriage

Diaghilev and Stravinsky’s male-centric view of the wedding as joyous celebration went unchallenged until Nijinska not only countered it but insisted upon her conflicting vision. As Sally Banes and others have noted, her vision “shift[ed] the terms of the ballet wedding’s significance from the male to the female perspective” (Banes 120). The potent image of hair draped as shackles around the future bride’s wrists illuminate her unwillingness to and unfreedom whether to wed, a strong critique of the institution of marriage. Because Nijinska insisted upon this image, her will to show marriage in this way makes the braids a surrogate for her onstage.

The discourse surrounding marriage and the status of women proliferated in revolutionary Russia, becoming an increasingly visible mode of necessary social change. As Banes notes in Dancing Women: Female Bodies Onstage, these circumstances added to the political significance of Nijinska’s decisions in Les Noces (Banes 109). In his landmark work on family life in the early modern period, Lawrence Stone examines marriage within each social stratum. Though his analysis takes England as a case study, his breakdown of marriage’s history can be more broadly applied to include most European cultures. He notes that in peasant societies or “cottage industries,” marriage was an economic necessity for survival, and for women “the only career available” (Stone 5, 18). Individual autonomy and wishes of the individual were not only not prioritized, but rejected outright as a goal towards which to strive, and the transfer of a woman from her kin to another’s was a means of transferring labor above all else, as scholars of Les Noces have indicated as motivation for the bride’s plight (Banes 110). Stone describes the journey from prioritizing group interests to “Affective Individualism”—in which marriage was associated with romantic love—as well-established by 1750, in the middle and upper classes. The 19th and 20th centuries, he explains, “merely saw their much wider social diffusion” (Stone 4). Therefore, when scholars of Les Noces note that women’s statuses had indeed dramatically transformed along with the social formations of marriage, it is precisely this syncopated time in which peasant Russia still operated, despite the immense upheavals of the Russian Revolution and other coinciding cultural shifts (Banes 108).

Despite (or perhaps in light of) peasant Russia’s commitment to these marriage practices, Nijinska staged its most critical issue: the violence it did to the bride. Immediately when she heard the music, she saw the ceremony as somber and “deeply dramatic” (Nijinska (1974) 59). Unlike Russian peasant women, she had been inculcated in the doctrine of affective individualism, and thus saw the tragedy of the individual in this group ritual. That said, she also understood its complexity, since as a ballerina herself she was intimately familiar with the sacrifice required of the individual for the benefit of the group. The ballet points to this tension between the two, since her fellow village women are the ones who place the hair shackles placed around her wrists. The shackles are redolent with heaviness, encapsulating the sense of downwardness that overlays the entire piece. Weighing the bride down is not only tradition but expectation: her wedding is a necessary sacrifice for the sake of the entire community’s continued functioning.

Susan Leigh Foster’s “Choreographies of Gender” makes a thorough case for examining the use of the word “performance” in the context of gendered behavior. The term “choreography,” she argues, is more equipped to talk about these identity aspects, because it allows us to more comprehensively contextualize the individual. Citing an inaugural user of the term “performative,” she notes the inevitable gaps in looking to language theorists like J. L. Austin to answer questions of performance of identity in the public sphere. “For Austin,” she writes, “the body, fundamentally the passive executant of the subject, enunciates words in the direction of another body-subject with which it intends to communicate. Some of its communications, by contractual agreement within the sociolinguistic order, perform the work of reordering the speaker’s relations to his or her surroundings, as in the often-cited example of ‘I do’ as the pivotal statement in the marriage ceremony” (Foster 30). There is more to a wedding than the two words spoken at the end, as Nijinska well knows. And in “The Blessing of the Bride,” she uses the body as far more than the “passive executant” to show this. By adorning the bride in enormous braids which then shackle her wrists, Nijinska forces the dancer’s body to radically transform her posture, shape, and way of moving, conveying a downtrodden spirit in the bride as she dances towards her eventual silent “I do.” Nowhere in the ballet is a critique of marriage more evident than when the corps de ballet drapes her braids around her wrists like shackles, making overt the implication that she is moving towards not the happy performative “I do,” but the sickly and unwilling “I must.” Nevertheless, the ceremony still functions as a wedding; a “speaking act,” if you will, as opposed to speech act. Despite the fact the use of braids on body exists outside the sociolinguistic order, it still reorders the bride’s relation to her surroundings physically on stage, and symbolically in its role in leading her to a wedding that will occur in the last segment of the ballet.[2] Thus the use of braids as shackles serve as a critique of marriage, and as a surrogate for Nijinska in this critique.

Weaving hair as an interrogation of classicism

As “The Blessing of the Bride” segment drives to its conclusion, the dancers weave the braids over and around themselves, staging Nijinska’s controversial choice to reject pantomime. The first point she refused to concede during the choreographic process was her choice to evacuate the ballet of “realist” traces. There would be no furniture nor lifelike props, such as a chair for the bride to sit in while the other girls brush her hair (Nijinska (1974) 59). The only prop onstage, she insisted, were to be the long braids on the future bride. And instead of having anyone brush her hair, the fellow women would weave the two braids around her and each other in an abstract floor pattern, to move from presentational to representational action. In Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer’s Legacy, Nancy Van Norman Baer calls this approach “anti-realist,” Sally Banes cites the influence of Edward Gordon Craig and Russian constructivism on Nijinska’s vision, and Lynn Garafola in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes argues that in this move Nijinska “purged the ballet of narrative” (Garafola 127). This “realist” approach of using pantomime, which was standard convention in ballet at the time, is seldom capable of (or, indeed interested in) representing the bride’s interior state, which is perhaps why Nijinska felt so strongly in rejecting it (Homans 92). In so doing, she was also rejecting many of the pleasures of conventional ballets: in which Romanticized love stories were depicted, and the inelegance of emotional ambiguity was avoided. When Foster glosses the history of ballet in “Choreographies of Gender,” she notes the way they trained to appear excessively graceful: “They mastered patterns of flow that would enhance their ephemerality and dexterous coordinations that would make them both intricate and fleeting” (Foster 13). Weaving cumbersome braids around the stage was neither ephemeral nor fleeting, no matter how dexterous and rigorously trained the ballerinas were. By going against this standard practice, Nijinska complicated the traditions of ballet and the expectations of the audience familiar with ballet’s conventions. Weaving the braids deliberately diminishes the romantic perception of a bride about to be happily wed.

The dancers are dramatically altered by the thick braids in their hands. Even more importantly, this new way of using props on the ballet stage would prove to push the boundaries of its aesthetic possibilities: it was unprecedented, and through it these bodies wrote a new segment in ballet’s history. Tricia Rose’s discussion of hip hop in Foster, interestingly, illuminates the weaving braids’ abilities to shift dance’s trajectory. She writes, the “flow, layering, and rupture […] manage threats to […] narratives by building in ruptures that highlight the continuity as it momentarily challenges it” (Rose, in Foster 14). The weaving braids disrupt the narrative way ballet stories were commonly told, even though the ballet does retain an intelligible narrative. While this is an artistic innovation in itself, Rose’s analysis suggests that this gesture in dance can have even broader connotations. She continues: “These effects at the level of style and aesthetics suggest affirmative ways in which profound social dislocation and rupture can be managed and perhaps contested in the cultural arena” (Rose, in Foster 14). Style and aesthetics of traditional Romantic ballet are all called into question with the way the braids weave in and out, instead of the traditional choice of pantomime. This represents an inaugural move into what scholars have variously labeled neoclassic, constructivist, or architectonic style in ballet, a unique way of making dances Nijinska invented and a rupture in the trajectory of ballet’s history (Baer, Garafola, Banes). But perhaps it also can also point to the way in which the braids interrogate the larger cultural arena, in the very conventions of ballet themselves. This provides an excellent transition into the third aspect of the braids I am analyzing: their hyperbolic length.

Hair length as hyperbolic femininity

In Romantic ballet, the standard hairstyle is the bun (Homans 521). Therefore when Les Noces’ audience first sees the bride in a bonnet, their interest is piqued. It is even more controversial when they realize for the first time that she does have a visible hairstyle, in the form of braids draped on the stage for feet in either direction. The first question arises: why does she have such long hair, and what does it symbolize? Its exaggerated length breaks with conventions of ballet that cue the audience to imagine a “realism” that is elevated; where the woman is always beautiful, and never somber on her wedding day. And though the braids are beautiful, they embody different connotations. In Rose Weitz’s Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives, she locates the growth of long, elaborate hairstyles in the emergent capitalism of the 18th century (Weitz 6). “At the extreme,” she writes, “women’s hair, like women’s dress, could be used to turn women into ornaments, incapable of working or even of caring for themselves” (Weitz 6). This presents an interesting paradox, because the bride in the ballet is anything but ornament—indeed, her impending marriage in a village economy largely signifies entering into a labor contract. However, the ballerina qua ballerina cites a long history of woman-as-ornament, a history of masking the effort behind ballet dancing to present the image of her “illusive fragility,” of the delicate, weaker sex needing to be supported and lifted by the male dancer (Foster 11).  By placing this long, heavy hair onstage, the ballerina’s labor is no longer hidden, indeed, the dancer repeatedly sinks to the ground under the added hair’s heft.

Weitz also notes that, “Perhaps the most widespread cultural rule about hair is that women’s hair must differ from men’s hair” (Weitz xv). In Les Noces the braids exaggerate that difference by making the bride’s hair longer than would be plausible or conceivably practical for her, and in this image we are made aware of the impracticality inherent in the femininity expected from women, especially from those women who dance in ballet. This femininity, as Foster redacts, is shaped by the long history of ballet’s development, coupled with the development of gender rules in its own society. She writes, “These kinds of changes in ballet, fashion, and anatomical study contributed to the massive overhaul of gender roles that established the separate spheres ideology of the nineteenth century” (Foster 12). Ballerinas are complicit in reifying these gender, while at the same time they are subjected to it. By overemphasizing the length of the bride’s hair Nijinska accentuates the stakes in women keeping their differences overt. If the bride did not have long hair, what would there be onstage to shackle her with?

But let me take a different tack to looking at the long hair. In Joseph Roach’s It, in which he analyzes the It-effect, or “properties shared by abnormally interesting people,” he devotes a chapter to hair and its alluring aspects.[3] He cites Gananath Obeyseekere’s description of hair as a “personal symbol,” “on the cusp of the psychological and the social self, which may originate in the unconscious urges of individual subjects, but which operates in the publicly symbolic practices of a culture” (Roach 125). Obeyseekere’s analysis illuminates the effectiveness of hair as a symbol: it functions as both a signifier of the bride’s internal psychological state and the dancer’s location in her culture’s symbolic practices. The tension between interiority and exteriority is shown in the gravitational pull the hair exerts on the bride’s head, the weight it lends to her already submitted, bent-over frame. Roach goes further to argue that “social hair is performance,” and we can take a cue from Foster to argue that social hair is also choreography (Roach 127). The bride’s hair almost exclusively performs her individuality: it is the only distinguishing physical characteristic about her. It performs the fact that she is unfreely marrying, but also that she belongs to a culture for which no woman is exempt from this social practice. It is also a sign of her domestication: by being braided, it is not wild, free, and able to seduce, it is tamed and moreover, it will be pinned into a bun around her head before the ballet is over. The complexity brought up by the bride’s extremely long hair stages Nijinska’s absent presence in bringing it to light.

Nijinska’s Surrogated Presence

Nijinska’s memoirs ultimately fell out of the range of this particular paper, but I find her omnipresent optimism in them of utmost interest. Especially in light of scholarship claiming autobiographical bitterness as a reductive, single inspiration for her bleak choreographic vision, her own words reveal enthusiasm for every opportunity she had as a dancer, even for the opportunity to be a deferential “Diaghilev Artist” who found small pockets of agency in the nameless cloud of the corps de ballet. Her aspirations were not small, however, and when she began making dances she strove not only to make great art herself, but to raise each ballet dancer in the corps from skilled worker to her own “highest artistic level” such that every ensemble dancer might express the “whole ballet-action” (Nijinska (1974) 59).  This endeavor is clear in Les Noces in which even though the bride is the protagonist, each corps member shares her sorrow even as they make themselves complicit in binding her to her fate. The braids allow for this simultaneity, as the village women manipulate the braids, but are no more free to set them down than the bride is to cut them off.

Nijinska spoke of wanting to create a “new type of ballet artist,” and in many ways the audacious move to place enormous braids onstage encapsulates this life-goal. Thus the hair can be seen as a representative of her absent body in the ballet. In “The Blessing of the Bride,” their exaggerated length, their weaving in and out of the dancers’ arms and bodies, and their being draped as shackles upon the bride all provide strong criticism of society and ballet both. Moreover, they captured her fervent desire to change the face of dance, and still remain as a trace of early innovations newer forms of dance would take up in different ways: stepping away from pantomime, linear narrative, and reinforcing traditions and norms. Ever modest, Nijinska attributes the catalyst for such enormous change to the premiere of her brother’s Sacre: “An awareness of the need for fearless self-expression—of the original, of the individual, of the unknown in art—awakened that night. / At last the mantle shrouding classical ballet, with all its old preconceived notions of ‘grace’ and ‘beauty,’ was lifted and discarded” (Nijinska (1981) 470). And while it’s true that Le Sacre du Printemps made more waves than did Les Noces, it is clear to me that her piece added a distinctly feminist ripple.

 

 

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Notes

[1] Especially because, until her death in 1972, she continued to tour the world, advising companies how her dances should be performed (Nijinska (1981) 524).

[2] For by that time, her braids are tied around her head, and that change and bodily articulation implied in it replaces any statement of words

[3] Also referred to as “personality driven mass attraction” (Roach 3). He breaks down the It-effect into “bits and pieces”—hair, skin, accessories, etc., since consumers of celebrity icons do “the work of creating the effigy in the physical absence of the beloved” (Roach 40). He also notes that each bit and piece “contributes attractive parts with different textures, any one of which might stand for the fugitive whole” (Roach 44). This fragmentation points to another way of looking at Nijinska as being surrogated onstage by the hair in braids.

 

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Bibliography

Baer, Nancy Van Norman. Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer’s Legacy. San Francisco: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986.

Banes, Sally. “Early Modern Ballet: Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Les Noces.” Dancing Women: Female Bodies Onstage. New York: Routledge, 1998.

The Firebird & Les Noces. Dir. John E. Gardiner and Igor Stravinsky. Perf. Leanne Benjamin, Jonathan Cope, Zenaida Yanowsky, and David Pickering. BBC / Opus Arte, 2002. DVD.

Foster, Susan Leigh. “Choreographies of Gender.” Signs 24.1 (1998): pp. 1-33.

Garafola, Lynn. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Homans, Jennifer. Apollo’s Angels. New York: Random House, 2011.

Nijinska, Bronislava. Bronislava Nijinska: Early Memoirs. Trans. Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Nijinska, Bronislava. “The Creation of Les Noces.Dance Magazine 48.12 (1974): pp.  58-61.

Roach, Joseph. “Hair.” It. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007, pp. 117-145.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

Weitz, Rose. Rapunzel’s Daughters: What Women’s Hair Tells Us About Women’s Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.