Sacrificial Victims

This weekend I will be attending the Royal Ballet’s production of The Rite of Spring.

First performed in Paris in 1913 – when Igor Stravinsky’s modernist music, Nicolas Roerich’s strange sets and costumes and Vaslav Nijinsky’s innovative choreography caused a riot among sections of the audience – The Rite of Spring or Le Sacra du Printemps is one of the most notorious and influential outcomes of a series of intense creative collaborations brokered by Sergei Diaghilev, artistic director of the Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century.

Set in an imagined ancient pagan culture, the climax of the ballet depicts a ritual human sacrifice in which the chosen virgin literally dances herself to death. Sadly, Nijinsky’s choreography has not survived (though there have been attempts to reconstruct it, notably by Joffrey Ballet) but like his earlier work L’apres-midi d’un faune (which was reputed to have required over a hundred hours of rehearsal time) the positions, steps and movements he envisaged were entirely dissimilar to the traditional ballet in which he and the other dancers had been trained.

A brilliant mime, actor and dancer, Nijinsky was less skilful at verbal communication and that may have added to the problem; but whatever the reasons he had great difficulty in conveying his vision to the ballerina Maria Piltz who was to dance the role of the sacrificial victim. On one occasion Marie Rambert was the only other person present as Nijinsky tried to demonstrate to Piltz exactly what he wanted, and was so awed by his performance that she thought that Nijinsky himself should have danced the role.

With clenched hand across his face, he threw himself into the air in paroxysms of fear and grief. His movements were stylized and controlled, yet he gave out a tremendous power of tragedy. It was a unique rendering of the solo by its creator, something to be remembered forever.

At the Royal Opera House this weekend the choreography is by Kenneth MacMillan and the sacrificial victim will be played by a male dancer.

One of the central images of Christianity is that of a victimised human being, Jesus Christ in his passion and death. But the crucifixion of Christ brings to an end the long, savage history of sacrificial victims, animal and human: no longer do we need to propitiate the gods in this way to cleanse and renew our land, society and culture, for God has borne the pain, God has assumed the hatred and the blame, God has revealed a divine heart of love and the sources of healing and renewal in the dying and rising of the Christ.

Even so the instinct to identify a sacrificial victim – a scapegoat to carry off the community’s hurt and dis-ease – remains a very powerful one in human interactions as René Giraud has pointed out. Victimising happens all the time, consciously and unconsciously, and, despite the cross being the break with this dynamic, and its remedy, it affects Christian communities as well.

The exclusion of Bishop Gene Robinson from the 2008 Lambeth Conference and now, the revelations about the handling of Jeffrey John’s episcopal nomination in Southwark and elsewhere are high profile examples of wholesale discrimination against, if not victimisation of, LGB and T people in the Church of England. This is why the Trustees have found it so painful to read about because it has reminded us of the numerous injustices of this kind we have experienced, encountered or that have been reported to us over the years. Jeffery John is not the only priest with an excellent CV and a wonderful personal file to be passed over or not appointed to a post just because he is gay – he is one of many.

Then again, anyone can become a victim – it can happen because of your ethnicity, disability, religion, gender, culture, accent, etc. The list goes on: it can happen to anyone. It happened to Nijinsky, supreme artist of victimhood – interestingly for not being gay enough. Secure, spoiled and feted in the Ballets Russes as its outstanding male dancer and also as Diaghilev’s lover, Nijinsky was dismissed from the company for getting married – an act of ostracism that began a series of episodes that would end his career as a dancer and choreographer as mental illness began to take hold. Such are the kinds of stress we can impose on our chosen victims.



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