I found it. Well, something close to it at least. I suppose I ought to explain.
It is a photograph I encountered in my first year of undergrad. I was taking an interdisciplinary fine arts class, one of those ridiculous survey courses that careens through a thousand years of cultural history in thirty-four weeks, minus exams. By winter term we had reached the module on dance, and the instructor rightly devoted a full lecture to the shift from classical to modern ballet, which entailed a lengthy discussion of the Ballets Russes.
Midway through her lecture, the instructor turned down the lights and narrated a series of black and white slides of the troupe’s ballet performances, neatly summarizing the plot lines of each while drawing attention to their stylistic innovations. Knowing almost nothing about dance, I found the discussion fascinating, and the images even more so; modernism just looks so good on film, even when it’s trying to be ugly. I suppose it couldn't help being an attractive zeitgeist, in contradistinction to that which followed it.
Suddenly, there it was: Vaslav Nijinksy in L’Après-midi d’un faune, the enormously campy ballet that took Paris by storm in 1912. As the Faun, Nijinsky cavorts with a group of nymphs adorned with silk scarves, who tease him to the edge of rape before abandoning him to an empty stage. One forgetful nymph, however, leaves behind her écharpe, which Nijinsky makes the object of his frustrated ardor.
The photograph was taken at precisely the moment that made Paris gasp. Nijinsky has laid the scarf down on the floor of the stage and raised himself up over it, his body fully extended and his every muscle as taut as piano wire. I imagine that he paused for dramatic effect, which must have seemed an eternity to the audience, then, knowing full well the effect his movements would have, he begins to slowly thrust his pelvis against the scarf.
Sitting at the back of the darkened lecture hall, with the instructor gently describing the image before us, I was, I am compelled to confess, overcome with desire. Was this how the Parisians felt? Did they lose their breath like this, the women bringing their thighs together under their skirts, the men shifting awkwardly in their seats? Or, was it even worse, with the aura of Nijinsky’s body there and the warmth of a thousand other bodies around them? Surely, every member of the audience made love that night with Nijinsky in the room. I did too, but I didn’t tell.
I haven’t seen the photograph again since, but I drift back to it occasionally, and did last night. I decided to go looking for it, and though the performance image eluded me, I did discover a studio shot of the same scene. It’s not at all like the photograph I remember seeing in class – there is no sense of movement in Nijinsky’s pose, and therefore no narrative – but it’s just enough to evoke the other, and to provide incontrovertible evidence of the encounter.
This is it.