Vaslav Nijinsky makes the ideal subject for a ballet and not just because he was a legendary Russian ballet dancer. His life and career, as interpreted by choreographer John Neumeier, illustrates the eternal artistic pursuit: to forge order out of chaos. Nijinsky, which premiered at the Hamburg Ballet in 2000, gives context and meaning to an artist shattered by mental illness. The tumult that stirred Nijinsky’s heart and mind was mirrored in the Great War, which raged on during the years before the dancer gave his last performance, and would destroy the old order of Europe. Nijinsky’s choreography, just like WWI, heralded the modern era.
The show begins with a recreation of the afternoon of January 19, 1919, when Nijinsky, soon to be confined to a sanitorium, gave his last public performance in the ballroom of a hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Gathered there are family and friends, and the impresario Serge Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s mentor and lover.
What follows, in Act I, represents Nijinsky’s thoughts, memories and hallucinations at the end of a colourful, ground-breaking career. Act II explores his descent into madness, his schizophrenic brother Stanislav’s confinement and death and his wife Romola’s efforts to help him, all against the backdrop of trench warfare.
Born in 1889, Nijinsky entered the school of the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, and it was in this company that he was noticed by Diaghilev and recruited for les Ballets russes. In the kaleidoscopic first act, we catch moments from Nijinsky’s best known roles: as a harlequin in Carnaval, the poet in Les Sylphides, the tennis player in Jeux, Petrushka, and most strikingly the faun in his own L’apres midi d’un faun.
Guillaume Côté, in what could be the most physically and emotionally taxing role of his career, soars as Nijinsky – famous for the height of his leaps – and crashes spectacularly. On stage for most of two hours, bare-chested and in the briefest of briefs, Côté takes us to exhilarating heights of joy and the depths of despair. Heather Ogden dancing Romola, who married Nijinsky thereby estranging him from Diaghilev, pulls off the difficult part of passionate wife who becomes the dancer’s protector and ultimately caregiver. As always, she and Côté dancing together approach the sublime.
Evan McKie embodies the dark, passionate genius of Diaghilev hovering in scene after scene.
Neumeier’s dance vocabulary is drawn from Nijinsky’s. The simultaneous side and frontal movement perfected in L’apres midi d’un faun is pure cubism. The right-angled arms and flexed feet, the tangled pas de deux as couples roll over each other, and the asymmetrical ensemble work all evoke the sense of a man and artist out of synch with others. Similarly, the music, from Chopin’s Prélude I in C minor through Schéhérazade and the thundering Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 supply the drama of Nijinsky.
Neumeier’s taste for the melodramatic is not out of place in this story. Neither is the focus on male pulchritude. Nijinksy was a broken spirit contained in a splendidly functioning dancer’s body. His stage persona are beautifully captured: Naoya Ebe is an ethereal Harlequin and Spirit of the Rose from Spectre de la Rose; Francesco Gabriele Frola glitters as the Golden Slave from Schéhérazade and nails the Faun; Skylar Campbell looks like a carefree young lord as the player from Jeux. Jonathan Renna’s Petrushka is emblematic: not just a dancer playing a clown/doll, but a man struggling to express himself. Sonia Rodriguez is sylphlike as the ballerina.
The family story that is so central to an understanding of Nijinsky gets lots of play. Dylan Tedaldi is striking as the schizophrenic brother Stanislav; Jenna Savella as the sister Bronislava and Xia Nan Yu as Nijinsky’s mother bring an element of grace and uncomplicated love. Brent Parolin is a tall, rigid figure as Nijinsky’s father.
Nijinsky is packed with action and visually sometimes overwhelming, but certainly worthy of repeat viewings.
Choreography by John Neumeier
A production of the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, until November 26
Photo of Guillaume Côté and Heather Ogden by Bruce Zinger