Jul 14, 2016

What's Gay about "The Afternoon of a Faun"

My friend Mickey the Russian Major, who I met at the Iowa Gay Pride March in 1981, told me about the Ballet Ruses, founded by Sergei Diaghilev to showcase the muscular bodies of male dancers, and his protege and lover Vaslev Nijinsky, who scandalized audiences with his homoerotic interpretation of L'apres-midi d'un faun (The Afternoon of a Faun).  My professor in Russian Culture and Civilization also told me that they were gay, symptoms of the "decadence" of fin de siecle Russia.

But how could you do a homoerotic interpretation of  The Afternoon of a Faun?

The original poem by Stephane Mallarme (1875), is a masterpiece of symbolist literature, but with no gay content.  A male faun of Greek mythology chases and has sex with several female nymphs, while saying things like "Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer" (These nymphs, I would perpetuate them).

It inspired Claude Debussy to write Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894), an orchestral piece that imagines the Faun pursuing nymphs all afternoon, and then tiring and falling asleep.  Again, no gay content.

In 1912, Vaslev Nijinsky choreographed and performed a ballet version, pursuing nymphs in a frenzy of heterosexual desire before finally taking one of their veils as an autoerotic fetish object.  He made it homoerotic by:
1. Training all eyes on his body, his masculine virility, not on the nymphs.
2. Training his eye on his lover, Diaghilev, so his autoerotic fantasy is about men.

It received mixed reviews and some downright hostility, so was only performed a few more times.

It was choreographed again in 1953 by Jerome Robbins, with Francisco Moncion (top photo) as the Faun, and in 2006 by Tim Rushton, with Johan Kobberg as the Faun.  They skip the homoerotic veil to make it heterosexist again.

In the 1980 movie Nijinsky, Nijinksy was played by George de la Pena, and Diaghilev by the gay actor Alan Bates.

See also modern dancers Ted Shawn and Erick Hawkins.

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