The black and white picture is a bit blurry. It shows a man levitating in midair, in a room that looks a bit like a bedroom. Next to him is an armoire. On the wall behind, his shadow cast on the wall echoes his suspended body. The silhouette is graceful; his legs are together and straight, his feet in first position, toes pointed, arms floating wing-like. Most intriguing is his head, the chin jutting forward slightly, eyes looking down, perhaps closed? The man looks as if he is smiling, absent-mindedly.
I’ve known this photo for years, but I had never actually looked at it quite like this. It was taken at Münsingen sanatorium in June 1939, when Romola Nijinsky was visiting her husband, the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Serge Lifar was also there, praying for a miracle, making every effort to ignite a spark of life in Nijinsky, to jump-start his memory. This famous jump was proof that they managed to do this. Nijinsky was renowned for his amazing leaps. They didn’t describe it as jumping, but as flying, sailing, catapulting himself on high, hovering, suspended in air, defying gravity, disappearing through windows. Lifar said he lived in air and space. But was he grounded at the same time? Most likely not.
Nowadays there is much less leaping, especially in contemporary dance, and when there are jumps they tend to be much lower. The body remains closer to the ground. Dancers have developed new techniques that tend to favor downward movements over upward ones, through falls, rolls, steps, the body’s relationship to gravity. Dancers don’t ascend, they are grounded. The floor and earth are now the playgrounds for exploring and inventing an infinite number of movements, the ground being a support not only for the feet but for the whole body. Yet jumping remains associated with energy and the expression of joy. When they’re not running, young children skip and jump for joy or when they’re excited or angry, but also for no reason at all, for the sheer pleasure of expending energy and feeling their bodies in the air. We also talk about skipping class, the great leap, a short hop.
When a dancer has a high jump, we say he has good ballon.
For my part, I loved to leap when I was a dancer. I especially loved the grands jetés, the little battus, the entrechats, the series of small jumps. More than anything, the jump is a musical relationshipyou have to actually hear its beat in your head, to let it sing. The jump is higher and less arduous if the highest point is emphasized, the very top of the jump. It is also important to visualize the jump, to imagine yourself defying gravity. Today I jump lessit happens with age. And in general, I see few people over 40 who start jumping for joy. Perhaps I have my feet on the ground, but my head still in the clouds?