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Man as Beast: Nijinsky's Faun

From: South Central Review
Volume 25, Number 1, Spring 2008
pp. 74-92 | 10.1353/scr.2008.0005


"Man as Beast: Nijinsky's Faun": Nijinsky's choreography of and performance in the modernist ballet Afternoon of a Faun (1912) caused an uproar when, with piebald leotard, pointy ears, and an erect tail that seemed to stand in for what the fig leaves covering his genitals at once signaled and concealed, Nijinsky as the mythical half-human/half-animal Faun seemed to engage sexually with a scarf left behind by a fleeing nymph. In his previous work with the Ballets Russes, Nijinsky had been crucial to the revitalization of the role of the male dancer in early-twentieth-century ballet, but the controversy that his first choreographic work generated suggests that Afternoon of a Faun constituted a transformational moment in the representation of male sexuality. This essay will consider how the narrative structure of Afternoon of a Faun intersected with its innovative choreographic style to stage, through the human/non-human figure of the Faun, a male sexual animal that was at once non-masculine yet non-effeminate. This queerly ambiguous figure constituted a modernist challenge to hegemonic ideologies of sex and gender and thus contributed to the early twentieth-century formation of alternative sexual identities, but the challenge that the ballet originally posed has since been obscured as Nijinsky and the Faun have become pathologically fused in popular cultural and critical discourse. This analysis of the choreography, performance, and reception of Afternoon of a Faun thus serves as a case study of how modernist performance practice disrupted normative sex and gender roles and, in doing so, participated in the development of, and fueled the circulation of discourse about, emergent sexual identities.