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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Nijinsky—Lost in the Chaos

Hamburg Ballet
Opera House
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
February 25, 2004

by Clare Croft
copyright © 2004 by Clare Croft
published 26 February 2004

Vaslav Nijinsky is a ballet icon. His ballets and life story have cemented his place in dance history. But with iconic status sometimes comes a flattening of character, and John Neumeier’s depiction of the famous dancer in the evening length Nijinsky has fallen into this trap. Neumeier devotes most of his two-and-half-hour ballet to placing Nijinsky’s inner landscape onstage, creating a swirl of impossible-to-digest dance that presents Nijinsky as a one-dimensional figure, lost in the swirl. The man who created the first truly modern ballets and passed through two complicated relationships, first with impresario Serge Diaghilev, then later his wife Romola, appears the same throughout Neumeier’s ballet. Though the relationships were, in fact, very different, Neumeier's depictions are not. The lack of subtle character development was even more striking after having seen Norman Allen's "Nijinsky's Last Dance" at the Kennedy Center this past fall.

Neumeier, an American who left for Europe in the seventies, then took over the Hamburg Ballet in 1973, has a talent for large, heavy, dramatic unison movement. He is best known for his ballets to commanding symphonies, particularly those by Mahler. Nijinsky gives little opportunity for him to showcase this strength, though the sections in the ballet’s second half that depict scantily clad WWI soldiers display his choreography at its best. The group of men, at least twenty onstage at a time, stomp and throw themselves around Nijinsky, illustrating the horror of the war was the final blow to a man in an already fragile state.

The ballet opens and closes with Nijinsky’s final public performance in a St. Moritz ballroom in 1919. Nijinsky (Jiri Bubenicek) begins with a contorted modern solo, then lilts into more balletic phrases as he remembers his most famous Ballets Russes roles: Harlequin from Carnaval, Spirit of the Rose in Spectre de la rose, and the Golden Slave in Scheherazade. Dancers dressed as each perform alongside Bubenicek, all under the watchful glare of top-hatted Diaghilev (Ivan Urban.) The onslaught of characters from Nijinsky’s past overwhelms the stage and their identities might be completely indecipherable for a non-dance historian. Neumeier supposedly has a large collection of Nijinsky memorabilia and seems to have incorporated every last thing he knows about Nijinsky into the ballet. Nothing about the story is distilled.

For awhile, the chaos is palatable, but as more and more dancers appear, including a distracting barrage of women and men dressed in brightly colored Scheherazade slave costumes who bound onstage to the trills of flutes, watching the entire stage is an impossibility. Nijinsky often dances with a figure--primarily Diaghilev, but once the scene moves to the ship, Romola (Anna Polikarpova) also—in a bright spotlight, the other dancers in deep sepia. The lighting makes the scene even more difficult to view, and it grows worse as the act closes with Nijinsky and Romola’s wedding, in which couples in formal attire mix with the gang of rainbow slave girls as the first act curtain falls. The musical collage of Chopin, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Shostakovitch also jars; the different works haphazardly stuck together.

Much of the partnering work conveys little. Duets between Nijinsky and Romola, the first closing Act I, the second near the ballet’s end, go on forever. Most troubling is the relationship depicted between Nijinsky and Diaghilev. The older man swooped up a young Nijinsky, making him famous while becoming his lover and father figure, then essentially disowning him when he married Romola. But Neumeier’s partnering for Bubenicek and Urban seems off, in part because Urban is sleek and manipulative, never conveying the sense of weight and age that impacted the pair’s relationship. (Why is Urban is dressed like a Miami Vice character in teal suit with bare chest on the ship?) The partnering suffers from a lack of fluidity, the two awkwardly grappling with each other.

Only Yukichi Hattori as Nijinsky’s brother Stanislav brings phrasing and believable drama to Neumeier’s choreography. His explosive dancing and contortions on the floor provide glimpses of a truly harrowing mental illness, not the more clichéd version choreographed for Bubenicek. However, Bubenicek is a lovely dancer with pretty lines and well-articulated feet. His torso bespeaks strength, though I do wish the mental contortions of his character might have been played out on his body more often.

Bubenicek’s usually bare chest was only one of many. Between the iterations of Nijinsky and the corps of male soldiers, Nijinsky is an ode, albeit a bizarrely sexual one, to the male body. The women of this ballet are incidental, even the oft-appearing Anna Polikarpova. Elizabeth Loscavio as Bronislava had a few nice moments, but was usually surrounded by so many other dancers it was impossible to watch her.

The program continues through Sunday afternoon.

Read other DVT reviews about Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:

From New York:  Gia Kourlas: Nijinsky: Clichés of Madness
From D.C.:  Alexandra Tomalonis:  Nijinsky: Madness and Metaphor
George Jackson:  Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes

Photos (both by by Holger Badekow):
First:  Jirí Bubenícek as Nijinsky.
Second:  Otto Bubenícek, Jirí Bubenícek, Anna Polikarpova

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 8
February 26, 2004

© 2004 Clare Croft




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last updated on February 26, 2004