Photograph of Nijinsky in the title role of the ballet Petrouchka, 1911. Music Div., Library of Congress.
Music by Igor Stravinsky; libretto by Igor Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois; sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois; choreography by Michel Fokine; premiere on 13 June 1911, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.
In her memoirs, Nijinska speaks about the first rehearsal. “The musicians refused to play Stravinsky’s music, saying they considered it an insult to perform such a piece of music where each note was in discord with the laws of harmony. The conductor, Pierre Monteux had no authority to force them to play. The presence of Igor Stravinsky did not bother them in the least. At last, Serge Diaghilev arrived. His imposing figure and the look of contempt on his face had an immediate effect on the musicians.”
She continued: “Many of the artists in the company did not understand Stravinsky’s music at all and expressed bewilderment that [Michel] Fokine was able to stage anything to it. There were a few of us, however, who did admire Stravinsky’s unusual and remarkable composition. The others accused us of being ready to like anything, as long as it had been discovered or approved by Diaghilev. ‘This is not music,” asserted some of the more outspoken proponents of the old classical ballet school. ‘You’ll see what sort [of] a failure the ballet will be at the Paris premiere.’ Stravinsky’s musical masterpiece took Paris by storm [with] thunderous applause. [It was a] triumph for Stravinsky, for Benois, for Fokine. [It was a] triumph for Nijinsky, for Karsavina, and for the ballet ensemble. [It was], of course, a triumph for Serge Diaghilev.”
Nijinska also discusses her brother Vaslav Nijinsky’s performance at the end of the work: “With an agonizing pain and sadness in his eyes, he extends a trembling arm in farewell to the crowd, knowing that only they, the gray, common, Russian crowd, love and understand Petrouchka. The heavy wooden head hangs to one side, and the tragic eyes stare out of the grotesque, still mask of the doll’s face.”