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No Regions for Soul Searching

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Stravinsky found that his work shaped his outlook on the events in his and others’ lives.

The previous year, while writing the music for Petrushka, he became preoccupied with the formation of personality: how people seemed to accrue or adopt characteristics as they moved through the different roles which life imposed upon them. Now, immersed in the strange scales and jagged melodies of The Rite of Spring, he found himself with little patience for any attempt to penetrate the hidden natures of his fellow men and women.

The piece, his music, Vaslav Fomich’s choreography set the heart to pumping and the mind to racing blindly, as though the earth had cracked open before one’s feet. Rite did not inspire the finer passions or delicate reflections. It was chthonic rather than elevating. The world had never seen or heard the like before, and Stravinsky found that he moved through his own music like one of those marvelous blind fish which lived only on the bottom of the deepest oceans: perfectly within his element, yet unable and unwilling to analyze or explain it. Rite was to be felt and lived, not studied.

During the morning’s rehearsal, the hours had been stretched long and thin by the dancers’ stubborn refusal to contort themselves into shapes and to beats different from the Palladian ones in which they had been trained. Stravinsky had accompanied the dancers on the piano, yet his head was filled with trilling bassoons and the sounds coming from the forest of the wind section.

When Diaghilev declared he would accompany him to lunch, Stravinsky nodded, too distracted to speak. Out on the boulevard, he walked still underground, underwater, beyond the lights and noise of an ordinary Paris day. The only external stimulus which reached him was a woman who squeezed rudely between he and Diaghilev. Probably a prostitute, she wore a low-cut red dress threatening to slip down her pale breasts. Stravinsky noticed her with no pang of lust, only a vague notion that he would have liked to know how she would look leaping frenziedly in the Chosen One’s dance of death. He barely registered Diaghilev pointing with the tip of his cane at the street corner where he had got cat-called by a gaggle of prostitutes years earlier, while walking on the arm of none other than Oscar Wilde. Stravinsky had heard the story before and never entirely believed it, knowing Diaghilev’s love of embroidering the truth for the sake of beauty.

At the café, Diaghilev retrieved a snow-white handkerchief from the inside pocket of his greatcoat and wiped the marble surface of their tiny, round table, before he would allow the waiter to lay down cutlery and glasses. He waited politely till the waiter had handed them menus and departed before he wiped the rim of his glass, his spoon, and his fork.

Stravinsky waited. He knew his friend’s nervous habits well.

At last Diaghilev fixed him with his gaze and said: “You do not think the rehearsals are going well.”

Stravinsky leaned back in his chair. Diaghilev tended to attack when he felt vulnerable, but Stravinsky was not some nubile member of the corps de ballet who would wilt under Diaghilev’s displeasure. Anyway, he knew Diaghilev was not displeased with him, nor even with the progress of the rehearsals, painful and plodding as that was.

Stravinsky struck back with a precise touché: “I think that Vaslav Fomich demands a lot, even when he himself does not know what it is he wants.”

Therein lay the difference between Stravinsky and Nijinsky: Stravinsky always knew exactly what he wanted. The rest of the world merely had to exert itself to catch up.

Diaghilev’s fleshy cheeks turned pink, but he did not start shouting. Neither, much to Stravinsky’s relief, did he appear to be on the verge of tears, as he so often tended to be when dealing with Nijinsky.

“Do you doubt his abilities?” Diaghilev asked in an oddly hushed voice. “Do you fear for the piece?”

Nijinsky was no choreographer, despite his talent and physical ability. He did not know how to shape other people to his purpose the way an experienced ballet-maker did. Yet Nijinsky’s choreographic abilities were not truly what lay between Stravinsky and Diaghilev, like a meal neither wanted to taste.

Stravinsky thought back to Nijinsky exhorting the dancers in short, clipped sentences, as though it pained him to have to wrench words from his body for their convenience, the sapphire ring Diaghilev had given him burning like a blue flame on his hand whenever it caught the sun. Stravinsky swallowed a grimace: he thought Diaghilev a fool for the gift. Stravinsky never would have given someone he could not ever hope to marry an engagement ring.

Stravinsky disliked Diaghilev’s opening salvo, the implicit demand that he should navigate both the music playing, always playing in his head and Sergei Pavlovich’s nervous desire to speak of the third member of their triumvirate, the odd and fey Vaslav Fomich. Stravinsky could only expend his energy on plumbing one kind of lower depths, though he did his very best to rally and attend to Diaghilev and Diaghilev’s woes, clustered close around his person like a dark cloud.

With some lingering reluctance – for who truly wanted to hear the person in whom they’ve lain their affection discussed in terms other than the glowing panegyrics one might use to describe one of Monsieur Fabergé’s useless, glittering concoctions? – Stravinsky said: “He is not a complete person. There are spaces within him where anyone else would store elements of their personality, but in him they are merely blank, an absence.”

Diaghilev raised his hand and twitched three fingers, his signet ring catching the sunlight, as though he were summoning an invisible waiter.

“That blankness you mention is the canvas upon which his greatness can manifest itself. Don’t all artists harbor such empty patches for the art to grow within? You have your own absences, I think, Igor Fyodorovich, or you would be a terribly ordinary person.”

His tone was light, but Stravinsky recognized the telltale creases in the pale flesh around Diaghilev’s lips. He had wounded his friend, as he had known he would if he spoke sincerely, yet to wound had not been his intention. He adopted a light cast of mien and tone of voice.

“I, Sergei Pavlovich? I assure you I am the most ordinary of men, and I have the wife and the mistress to prove it. What could be more ordinary than getting scalded with hot tea in the morning for the cardinal sin of having come home very late the previous night and left one’s muddy galoshes on the bedroom floor?”

Diaghilev laughed dutifully at Stravinsky’s marital tribulations, his eyes sparkling hard and bright like his signet ring, but the sad creases around his mouth did not vanish.

Stravinsky could not comprehend how his friend’s great capacity for passion had come to roost upon such an unlikely pedestal as Nijinsky, but he accepted that it had and that Diaghilev, feared and revered by all the company, was suffering. He would reject any overt show of sympathy and mock the one who proffered it, yet if Stravinsky pretended to notice nothing untoward, Diaghilev would remember that as a slight rather than a kindness.

All great men are prickly and self-centered.

Stravinsky lingered for a moment on the uncharitable thought, while his mind’s eye lingered on Nijinsky’s form, conjured up from that morning’s rehearsal: too stocky for a dancer, too short, too smooth-faced, too fey and too muscular all at once, but ah! when he moved. When he deigned to move as though inspired from on high and not as mere muscle and bone. And by the window through which the sunlight and noise of Paris poured in, a cigarette in its gilded holder between his fat fingers, like a sultan surveying his court: Diaghilev, motionless and rapt in the sight of Nijinsky moving across the floor. The solid center around which the company revolved, which Vaslav Fomich resisted even as its gravitational pull enabled him to spin faster and faster in the thin ether in which he seemed to exist, poised always at least a foot above everyone else’s heads.

Perhaps that was the key for Diaghilev’s grande passion and Nijinsky’s receptiveness to it: they each saw the other as no more and possibly far less than they believed they were due.

For all that he wanted no great part in his friend’s emotional imbroglios, Stravinsky could not help thinking that, one day soon, and as inevitably as the evening tide coming in, Vaslav Fomich would break Diaghilev’s heart. He would not intend to do it, it would happen without any maliciousness or desire to cause pain, but he would do it nonetheless. Nijinsky would do it either in the same unexamined, spontaneous way he did everything, or in pursuit of a more violent impulse hidden even from himself, a great breaking of chains and flapping of wings, an anguished cry to free himself from Diaghilev’s domineering love.

Really, Stravinsky reflected wryly, thinking again of the woman in the red dress he’d seen on the boulevard, Nijinsky should be the one to dance the Chosen One. He has already delighted the scandal-mongers with his faun, surely the sight of him in a peasant smock and braids would not be going too far.

Stravinsky laid his hand briefly on Diaghilev’s where it rested on the tiny table between them. Stravinsky’s long, cool fingers covered Diaghilev’s smooth, pudgy hand and his ornate signet, like the first snowfall erasing the features of the landscape in his beloved Ustilug.

“Let’s have a brandy, Seryozha.” This time, Stravinsky did not have to fine-tune the timbre of his voice: the elegiac affection in it was real, as true of the man sitting beside him as of the memories haunting him momentarily. “We have enough time for one before we must go back and harry those lazy dancers.”

Diaghilev’s smile and small nod of acquiescence were as sincere as a child’s. He looked, for a moment, as guileless as when he wept over Nijinsky’s moods: a man incapable of cruelty or subterfuge.

As he summoned a waiter with a brief wave, Stravinsky was reminded of another aphorism, the source of which he could not remember: No man is just one thing. Perhaps this was especially true of great men, in whatever form they visited the earth.