Last Saturday I watched the Canadian premiere of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a biographical ballet about the famous Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, who eventually spirals into madness. It is an ambitious, dramatic production that overflows with ideas and high physical and emotional demands for the entire company. From my experience with The Seagull, the other Neumeier ballet that I’ve seen live, I thought this ballet might be equally confusing and long; however, though at times it is overwhelming, I found myself enjoying this ballet quite a lot. Here’s why:
Firstly, an homage to one of the greatest male dancers of all time hits a sentimental chord with all of us in the ballet world. It consists of a mixture of classical and modern styles with so many references to ballet history that give us pride in being a part of that legacy. But besides that, Nijinsky’s life is told through flashbacks and hallucinations that meander between the past and the present, in a way that is visually appealing and intriguing for all audiences.
(Photo courtesy of russianballethistory.com)
The beginning of a synopsis in the program written by Neumeier himself:
On January 19, 1919 at five o’clock in the afternoon in a ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, Vaslav Nijinsky danced publicly for the last time. He called this performance his Wedding with God.
My ballet Nijinsky begins with a realistic recreation of this situation. The choreography which follows however, visualises his thoughts, memories and hallucinations during this last performance.
One of my favourite parts is the boat pas de deux in which Nijinsky remembers meeting his wife. It is actually more of a pas de trois because a vision of himself dancing the role of a faun who fell in love with a nymph joins in the dance and mirrors Nijinsky’s realization of his love for a woman. It it beautifully choreographed to beautiful music, really filling you up with warm feelings. Another part that has imprinted itself in my mind is the scene pf internal madness in which the corps, dressed in army jackets, move to quite harsh music as Nijinsky yells counts at the top of his lungs on a chair. In the same section, dancers are told to laugh maniacally in shrieks and hoots, creating a truly scary, chaotic atmosphere for Nijinsky, and for us. The emotional states that this work asks its performers to reach and is able to stir inside us, the audience, is something that is truly special and touching in my opinion.
So the choreography was great, as was the set and costumes, all designed by Neumeier (not to mention the music as well). But what about the dancing? Is is great to see The National Ballet of Canada take on a neoclassical work of such a large scale; the energy was infectious. Especially in the second act, the dancers matched the intensity of the orchestra impressively and were a solid ensemble. There were a few noticeable slips in the first, but these are easily forgiven in the abandoned interpretations of several dancers that left us breathless. As this ballet is new to the company’s repertoire, I think it will be exciting to trace how the interpretations develop as it is performed through the coming years.
Painting by Vaslav Nijinsky. The theme of circles in his art inspired the set.
(Courtesy of dancelines.com.au)
I feel I have more to read and learn to fully appreciate the underlying themes of this work and until today am freshly fascinated by the creativity of its concept. It’s a presentation of ballet history, a dramatic tragedy, and a celebration of dance and the capacities of its artists all rolled into one. The depth of thought in Nijinsky makes it a ballet that is so rich that you cannot see everything in one show, and probably will not ever see the same things twice. I’m glad it was brought to Toronto and look forward to seeing it again.
Thanks for reading,
(All images of the Hamburg Ballet.
Courtesy of Holger Badekow otherwise noted.)
Link to NBoC’s production:
Excerpt from an autobiography of Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950):