The ballet L'après-midi d'un faune (or The Afternoon of a Faun) was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes, and first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on May 29, 1912. Nijinsky danced the main part himself.
The style of the ballet, in which a young faun meets several nymphs, flirts with them and chases them, was deliberately archaic. In the original scenography designed by Léon Bakst the dancers were presented as part of a large tableau, a staging reminiscent of an ancient Greek vase painting. They often moved across the stage in profile as if on a bas relief. The ballet was presented in bare feet and rejected classical formalism. The work had an overtly sexual nature for its time and ended with a scene of simulated masturbation.
Lydia Sokolova, the first English dancer in the Ballets Russes, gave the following description of Nijinsky's performance:
It was especially the final masturbatory gesture of the choreography that caused the scandal which followed the first performance. In the newspaper Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette wrote: "We have had a faun, incontinent, with vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness." To him Nijinsky's dance was "the too-expressive pantomime of the body of an ill-made beast, hideous, from the front, and even more hideous in profile," and his paper started a campaign against the ballet. In reply, the sculptor Auguste Rodin published a defense of the choreography and in a letter to Le Figaro painter Odilon Redon expressed the wish that his friend Mallarmé could have seen "this wonderful evocation of his thought."
Due to its hostile reception the ballet was only in the repertoire for a few years before being forgotten and assumed lost. In the late 1980s dance notation specialist Ann Hutchinson Guest reconstructed the ballet from Nijinsky's own notebooks, his dance notation and the photographs of the dancers that were made by Baron Adolf de Meyer shortly after the first performance. This reconstructed version is often presented with Nijinsky's other works or repertoire from the Ballets Russes.
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