The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
March 2, 2013
by Denise Sum
Copyright © 2013 by Denise Sum
It has been over a century since Vaslav Nijinsky exploded onto the international dance scene with the Ballets Russes, becoming an icon for male dancers everywhere and changing the course of ballet history forever. To this day, he remains a legendary figure and a subject of endless fascination, not in the least by choreographer John Neumeier. Neumeier's ballet "Nijinsky" was created for The Hamburg Ballet and premiered in Germany in 2000, but this was the first time it was seen in Canada and the first time that it was performed by another company. With "Nijinsky", Neumeier takes on the near impossible task of trying to explore the inner world of an enigmatic, brilliant artist who spent much of his life battling his own demons. His story is the stuff of tragedies and the National Ballet of Canada dancers committed themselves earnestly to doing it justice.
"Nijinsky" gradually brings the audience into the dancer's world. The ballet begins with the house lights still on. A pianist is on stage playing Chopin for an audience of socialites. This is the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland on January 19, 1919. The guests chatter away until an abrupt scream is heard from backstage. A flustered and unnerved Romola (Nijinsky's wife) quietly slips into the ballroom and presses the door shut. Silence. In that moment, the tone has completely changed, the house lights dim and Neumeier signals our collective descent into Nijinsky's dark psyche. Nijinsky bursts into the room, launching into a solo performance that is in turn intensely heavy and childishly playful. It is his final public performance, which he dubbed his "Wedding with God" -- a poignant end to a career that was far too short. From this prologue of sorts, Neumeier goes back in time, revealing the highs and lows of Nijinsky's turbulent life up to that point.
The imposing figure of Serge Diaghilev is introduced early on. In the ballroom in St. Moritz, Nijinsky's last dance is met with a flurry of applause, but that all fades until all that remains is Diaghilev's slow, steady clapping. Easily recognizable in his trademark top hat, Diaghilev's presence and gaze is immediately felt. The sight (or hallucination) triggers Nijinsky's recollections of his dancing days, from the Imperial Ballet to the works of Michel Fokine and finally, his own choreographic creations. What follows is a stream of consciousness succession of intermingling scenes from ballets, and appearances from his family (his parents, sister, and brother) and colleagues (including frequent partner, Tamara Karsavina, and rival Leonid Massine).
Despite the lack of a linear passage of time, this segment flows seamlessly and gives a sense of Nijinsky's versatilty and androgynous allure. Different dancers in turn portray Nijinsky, the ballet superstar, in his various guises: the Harlequin in "Carnaval", the Spirit of the Rose in "Le Spectre de la Rose", the Golden Slave in "Scheherazade", the Young Man in "Jeux", and the Faun in "L'Après-midi d'un faune". There are also references to "Les Sylphides" and the second act of "La Bayadère".The idea is not to provide a historically acurate rendering of these works, but to imagine the whirlwind experience of moving from St. Petersburg to Paris and being quickly thrust into the spotlight performing these intoxicating, avant-garde works. The predominant musical theme is that of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade". Neumeier designed the sets and costumes based on sketches from Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, which add to the richness of this segment. There is a lot going on, but it somehow works.
Act two is less coherent. It centres on Nijinsky's psychosis and depicts the chaotic life and world events that may have precipitated the onset of his symptoms, which were later diagnosed as schizophrenia. The walls erected at the back of the stage are knocked down as Nijinsky's reason and certainty collapse. On paper, juxtaposing the horrors of World War I and the death of his brother, Stanislav, with the riotous premiere of his "Le Sacre du printemps" could make thematic sense. The way it was executed, however, was a drawn out blur of thrashing set to Shoshtakovich's lengthy Symphony No.11. Maybe the point is for this act to be disjointed and scattered to mirror Nijinsky's inner state, but it also risks becoming tedious for the viewer.
Interestingly, however, it is in this act that we see Petruschka, rather than the first act where Nijinsky's other famous roles are referenced. Petruschka, in a black and white costume, dances alone and later with a group of soldiers. Petruschka's character is perhaps emblematic of Nijinsky's suffering, sacrifice, and unrequited love. The natural comparison between the Charlatan and Diaghilev is hard to miss.
As the ballet probes "deeper" into Nijinsky's mental illness, things turn ugly and clichés abound. Diabolical laughter, spastic hand movements, violent behaviour... In the 21st century one would hope that we have moved beyond such damaging (and inaccurate) stereotypes of "madness". In the scene where Nijinsky is shouting counts during "Le Sacre du printemps", his maniacal speech is actually incomprehensible. While, admittedly, it is harder to depict the complexities of his illness without words, in these settings less is often more. For instance, in Shen Wei's "Rite of Spring", there's a moment when the music swells yet instead of flailing and convulsing, the dancers are utterly motionless until one by one, they start twitching. It is one of the most unexpectedly powerful and eerie moments I can recall. The work closes back in St. Moritz, and we know the tragic ending. Nijinsky never performs again in public and spends the rest of his life in and out of psychiatric institutions.
Problems in the second act aside, "Nijinsky" has plenty of meaty roles for the company's talented male dancers. As Nijinsky, Guillaume Côté gave a formidable performance with such technical virtuosity and gut-wrenching drama that one wonders if there is anything that he cannot do. He held nothing back, literally diving face first into the ground on occasion. Equally deserving of mention is Jiří Jelinek as Diaghilev.While he was harsh, controlling and slimy at times, there was also a magnetism about him that suggested why he was so good at what he did. The homoerotic pas de deux between Nijinsky and Diaghilev was sexually charged but there were also moments of gentleness. At many points, Diaghilev literally carried Nijinsky upon his shoulder, bearing his burdens as his own. Aleksandar Antonijevic was haunting and martyr-like as Petrushka, highlighting the pathos of the role. Naoya Ebe, Keiichi HIrano, and Francesco Gabriele Frola were each brilliant in Nijinsky's other famous Ballets Russes roles.
As for the women, Heather Ogden was quietly moving as Romola. In the first act, she is almost more in love with his on stage persona than anything else. She is infatuated with the Slave, the Spirit of the Rose, and the Faun. Gradually, we see her love for Nijinsky grow deeper as she wearily accepts his illness while struggling to maintain their changing relationship.
Neumeier's "Nijinsky" is commendable in its efforts to illuminate the joys and struggles of Nijinsky, not just as "The God of Dance", but as a man. It is a theatrical, layered work spanning several years, countries, and styles of dance. Although there are problematic areas, particularly in the second act, it is an interesting addition to the NBoC repertoire and provides several meaningful roles to the company's dancers.
Photo: Guillaume Côté in "Nijinsky". Photo by Erik Tomasson.