The nearly hundred years of Lillian Gish are a measure of the arts and their relationship to public life in the twentieth century. Lillian, who was born with the cinema and grew as the medium developed, became one of the first significant talents its technology preserved. But it is to television that we owe an extraordinary document that records the essential meanings of her image. She had already turned ninety when, on May 13, 1984, the Metropolitan presented Celebration, a gala performance that marked the history of nonoperatic presentations at the Opera House. In the darkened theatre we hear Lillian’s voice as she recalls a performance of Le Spectre de la Rose with Vaslav Nijinsky that, fifty years before, she had attended in the company of sister Dorothy and Charlie Chaplin.
(It must have been much more than fifty years because Nijinsky had retired by 1919, but, after all, Lillian was always vague about dates.) She was astonished by Nijinsky, who “actually seemed to stay suspended in air, and since then, she said, she had dreamed of being in the ballet. The curtain then opens and it is the audience’s turn to be astonished, so much so that, after a moment’s hesitation, it roars its ovation.
There is nonagenarian Lillian in the role of the girl, in a white dress, asleep in a chair, a rose in her lap. The girl in the ballet has little to do other than recline gracefully, rapt in her dream of the specter of the rose. Patrick Dupond executes the famous Nijinsky leap through the window, dances around her, hovers near her face, and finally exits just as she stirs. With the rose in her hand, Lillian rises from her chair and moves across the stage as if searching for the specter that came to her in her dream. She opens her arms wide, smells the rose, and the curtain falls.
Lillian was coached in the part by Natalia Makarova, who had learned the role from Tamara Karsavina, who had created Fokine’s ballet along with Nijinsky in 1911, just one year before Lillian had walked into the Biograph studio on Fourteenth Street and struck D. W. Griffith with her ” exquisitely fragile, ethereal beauty.” Lillian had come full circle, back to the beginning of her career. In he Spectre de la Rose, she may not perform arabesques of dance, but she incarnates arabesques of time. On the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, in the tenth decade of her life, Lillian Gish again becomes the girl first adored by Griffith, then by the world. And here, in the art of ballet, which, like pretalkie cinema, weds movement and music, she reminds us how she came to know the universal language of silent gesture so well that she taught audiences to hear words she never spoke and, even more miraculously, to read her mind and heart.
— Charles Affron —