Faun and fantasy | AspenTimes.com

Faun and fantasy

Stewart Oksenhorn

When the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky entered the realm of choreography, he arrived with a controversial splash. Nijinsky’s first dance creation was “Afternoon of a faun,” whose depiction of a faun simulating masturbation with a nymph’s scarf created a scandal at its 1912 premiere.

Thierry Malandain wasn’t so concerned with the scandalous content of the piece. The first time he saw “Afternoon of a faun,” from the backstage wings at the Paris Opera Ballet, he was touched by the Debussy score. The second time he saw it, also from a backstage vantage, Malandain was even more amazed by how well the dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, handled the fantasy about a boy maturing into manhood.

“He was a legend, a real force,” said Malandain, speaking French through a translator. “But he also had the innocence and the child quality in his interpretation. He had the ability to convey both strength and innocence ” and that can also be found in the music. There’s a man developing, and then it goes back into the child.”

Though “Afternoon of a faun” had been reinterpreted several times over the years, Malandain wanted to give it a shot as well. Ballet Biarritz, which he directs, premiered Malandain’s solo version of the piece in 1995. The ASFB’s Sam Chittenden, a former student of Malandain’s, will be the third dancer to perform the piece when it is featured at this week’s Aspen presentations.

The contemporary interpretation has the potential for further scandal: In Malandain’s version, the faun is no longer lying on a rock, but on a box of tissues with two more giant rolled-up tissues completing the set, a reference to the tools of masturbation. Malandain plays down the controversy, focusing on the beauty of the original choreography, the music and the honest portrayal of sexuality.

“It’s basically a young man discovering his sexuality,” he said. “And it’s very much about fantasy. There’s a Kleenex that he uses to clean up, and a fresh Kleenex. And each one reminds him of a sexual experience. But it’s in his head ” he’s trying to re-create the sexual experiences in his mind.”

Malaty was aware of other contemporary versions of “Afternoon of a faun” and didn’t see any of them as significant. But when he saw Malandain’s version last year at New York’s Joyce Theatre, he believed it was a worthy reinterpretation and invited Malandain to work with the ASFB.

“I think it puts people in touch with their own fantasies,” he said. “It’s so intimate, and that’s something we don’t see too often.”