Sunday, March 17, 2013

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky: As Brilliant and Mad as its Subject

Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky. (Photo by Erik Tomasson)

I am aware that saying I am over the moon mad for a ballet about a dancer who spent half his life in and out of insane asylums sounds, well, a little crazy. But go ahead, commit me. Because I am certifiably nuts about Nijinsky, choreographer John Neumeier’s two-act homage to the great Ballets Russes dancer who tragically lost his mind in 1919, at the age of 29, after only 10 years of blazing like a comet across the stage. This ballet is my amour fou.

I saw it twice earlier this month during its recent run at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts as part of the National Ballet of Canada’s spring season and each time the ballet was a revelation to me. Neumeier captures the epic sweep of the singular dancer’s triumphs and tragedy and as such his ballet is a masterpiece. It held me mesmerized, start to finish. 

I was moved to the point of tears by Neumeier’s technically innovative and emotionally rich choreography as well as by the multitasking dance artist’s symbolic set design of massive moving circles, his costumes invoking the quasi-Orientalism of Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, seminal designers of Les Ballets Russes in Paris, and the score he created from fragments of Chopin, Schumann and Rimsky-Korsakov in Act One and the whole of Shostakovich’s dark and thundering Symphony No. 11 in G-minor in Act Two. 

But in particular I was moved, and moved deeply, by the dancers who performed with a ferocity of passion that appeared to approximate the legendary ardour and eroticism associated with the original Ballets Russes enterprise, making the legend, as well as the madness swirling around it, feel palpably real. 

Choreographer John Neumeier. (Photo by Holger Badekow)
Originally created in 2000 for the Hamburg Ballet, the company the American-born Neumeier has been directing for the last 40 years, the Toronto run represented both the work’s Canadian debut and the first time a company other than the Hamburg Ballet has been allowed to dance this work. The Canadians did it proud. The dancers weren’t just performing steps. They were eviscerating a famous dancer’s mind and soul, exposing it by turns as brilliant and battered. For this, they had to lose themselves in the roles they were dancing. They had to sacrifice something of their own sanity in order to do the ballet right. 

This was as true for members of the ensemble as it was for those dancers in leading roles, among them principal dancer Guillaume Côté and corps de ballets dancer Skylar Campbell alternating as the Vaslav Nijinsky character and principal dancers Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriguez (a born-to-it Neumeier dancer) who took turns performing the part of Nijinsky’s wife, Romola. All danced with a remarkable sense of commitment and passion in addition to technical prowess. 

Campbell especially stood out being a newcomer. He and Rodriguez gave a powerful performance of Nijinsky marked by fragility. Côté and Odgen, a real-life married couple, were intensely dramatic in their respective handling of the part. For Côté, principally, the role of Nijinsky presented a breakthrough for him as an emotive dancer: He threw himself into it, limb and soul.

Yet Nijinsky isn’t a docudrama. While called a narrative ballet (and there is plenty of narrative detail in it), Nijinsky does everything but tell a linear story. There is no 'this happened first' and 'then that happened next'. The ballet is never that simple, and that is because Neumeier is a world expert on Nijinsky who knows every leap and nuanced turn of the dancer's story. He’s been studying the subject for 60 years. When he was an 11-year old in his native Milwaukee, he discovered Anatole Bourman’s The Tragedy of Nijinsky in his local library. The dancer then became Neumeier's lifelong obsession. His vast personal collection of Nijinsky and Ballets Russes memorabilia, including images and texts, forms the bulk of the John Neumeier Foundation, a dance archive and library founded in Hamburg in 2006. He put some of that knowledge into an earlier 1979 ballet called Vaslav. But this one, created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the dancer’s death in London in 1950 at age 60, is his magnum opus. Neumeier has rooted it in documented fact but it is really a work created from the heart. 

Skylar Campbell and Sonia Rodriguez. (Photo by Bruce Zinger)
It has a historic starting point: Nijinsky’s final public performance at the 1919 Red Cross Gala at the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz. But as befitting an unravelling mind, the ballet continues in fragments, not whole sentences. Facts are fast-pitched as curveballs. Those who don’t know the Nijinsky story to begin with might have trouble catching what is actually going on. This is, after all, a ballet about a famous dancer by a former dancer for other dancers as well as dance lovers. But there is common ground. The subject might be Nijinsky but the theme is the fragility of the human condition. Neumeier also sets his ballet against the backdrop of World War I, a time of universal madness which even a novice could understand.

The story which follows, if a series of hallucinations can be called that, voyages forward and backward in time, ultimately looping back onto itself in imitation of the circles that Nijinsky would come to draw obsessively and compulsively soon after being institutionalized later the same year of his last performance. The work also travels deep within the troubled mind of the dancer himself, tunnelling down into memories of the roles he made famous during his time on the stage – the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (Patrick Lavoie and Keiichi Hirano alternating), the Rose in Spectre de la Rose (Dylan Tedaldi and Naoya Ebe alternating) the Harlequin in Carnaval (Tedaldi and Ebe again) Faun in L’apres midi d’une Faune (Lavoie and Hirano again alternating) and the Young Man in Jeux (Asiel Rivero and Francesco Gabriele alternating). Nijinsky’s recalls these artistic victories while also remembering his 1907 graduation from the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg as the greatest male dancer of his era. There are other life episodes presented in a similar stream-of-consciousness fashion, his artistic collaborations with his talented dancer/choreographer sister, Bronislava Nijinska (Chelsy Meiss, Jenna Savella and Jordana Daumec alternating), for instance, and his 1913 marriage to Hungarian aristocrat and one time Ballets Russes dancer Romola de Pulszky whom he got to know better on board a ship bound for South America where the ballet company was to tour.

In the ballet, Romola is depicted as being perhaps more in love with her husband’s rock star image than with the man himself. It’s an interesting interpretation, showing that few during the heyday of the Ballets Russes were immune to its sexualized charms. Nijinsky in the early decades of the 20th century was sought after by men and women alike who used to mob him at the stage door and sneak into his dressing room to steal his clothing. He was the Jim Morrison of the ballet world and even his own wife thrilled to his fame.

Nijinsky’s marriage forced his estrangement from Ballets Russes founder and impresario Sergei Diaghilev who had been Nijinsky’s lover up until that time. Nijinsky has visions in which he sees Diaghilev always around him. He remembers when they first met, stirring up complicated emotions. Piotr Stancyk and Jiři Jelinek alternated in the role of Diaghilev in Toronto. Jelinek portrayed him as a sexual predatory with pedophile tendencies while Stancyk tended to moderate those sexual appetites by showing them as an artistic predilection placing a higher value on virile dancing than the type of diaphanous dancing epitomized in the person of The Ballerina, Tamara Karsavina (Rodriguez and Elana Lobsanova alternating). 

In real life, Diaghilev was a complex real-life character, a maverick of modernism who promoted free love at the same time as he was deeply superstitious and emotionally domineering. In the ballet, he is no less multifaceted. Neumeier presents him as a magnetic presence seduced by his own creations. The chief of those was Nijinsky whose genius Diaghilev stoked when directing him within the opulent confines of the Ballets Russes, commissioning him to create the revolutionary ballet, Le sacre du printemps to the stark and percussive music of Igor Stravinsky. The ballet’s 1913 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris (this May marks the work’s centenary with commemorative performances dedicated to Nijinsky being staged around the world) sparked a riot which pleased Diaghilev who noted it as one in a series of succès de scandale for which his ballet company was famous.

Keiichi Hirano and Heather Ogden (Photo by Bruce Zinger)
After separating from Nijinsky, Diaghilev moves quickly to pick up with a new male dancer, Leonid Massine (Rivero and Gabriele again alternating), turning his back on his one-time favourite. The general belief is that the break-up with Diaghilev caused Nijinsky’s psychological breakdown, or, conversely, that the marriage lead to his downfall. But Neumeier takes a different stance. He knows that madness, in fact, ran in Nijinsky’s family. 

Nijinsky’s Polish dancer mother, Eleanora Bereda (Xiao Nan Yu), starved herself to death following the demise of her fellow dancer husband, Thomas Nijinsky (Jonathan Renna and Brett van Stickle alternating); his older brother, Stanislav (Francesco Gabriele and Dylan Tedaldi alternating) died in an insane asylum when Nijinsky was in St. Moritz. Stanislav’s death occurs in Act Two, which is almost completely given over to the theme of insanity. Neuemier makes it clear that he believes that Stanislav’ incarceration and subsequent death had more to do with Nijinsky’s demise than his estrangement from the Ballet Russes. 

There are other factors besides: the outbreak of World War I saw Nijinsky exiled in Switzerland, away from the theatre which had nurtured him. As he wrote in his own diaries, he felt trapped, frustrated and alone, feelings Neumeier brilliantly communicates through the poignant figure of Petruschka (danced at all performances by Aleksandar Antonijevic), another of Nijinsky’s famous roles. In the ballet, Petruschka bursts outside the proscenium arch, shattering the proverbial fourth wall, to kick and punch the theatre’s walls but in vain: He is still a prisoner of his situation.

These scenes of madness culminate with the original Suvretta House Hotel being transformed into lunatic asylum. The inmates include the same audience members who had originally assembled (back at the beginning of the ballet) to see Nijinsky’s recreate his fabled gravity-defying leaps only to be disappointed when he initially presented them instead a sample of his experimental choreography. When some had threatened to leave, Nijinsky then gave them what they wanted: He jumped, he turned, he winked; he acted the fool. They applauded him, parasites feeding off the fruit of his fame. In the end, Nijinsky sees that they are as crazy as he is: People just mad about art. 

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, has just been published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out for more book updates.

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