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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Nijinsky: Madness and Metaphor

Hamburg Ballet
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
February 26 and February 28 (evening), 2004

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2004 by Alexandra Tomalonis
published 1 March 2004

It’s not often one gets to see identical twins take on a leading role. John Neumeier provided that opportunity by casting Jirí and Otto Bubenícek as Nijinsky in his evening-length work of that name. In this case, curiosity was well-rewarded: there were not only differences, but each man had contrasting strengths. (I must state that my comparison is from viewing the two only in this one role in this one ballet, and that I’m trusting that each twin danced at his announced performance. The two also alternated as Nijinsky and the Faun, each playing Faun to his brother's Nijinsky.)  J. Bubenícek, who danced the role opening night, has a stronger technique; O. Bubenícek, at the Saturday evening performance, danced with more plasticity and more expression.

The differences made me curious about Neumeier’s intentions, as the first night's cast of J. Bubenícek (Nijinsky), Anna Polikarpova (Romola, his wife) and Ivan Urban (Diaghilev) seemed rather implacable, he (Nijinsky) in his suffering, they in their love, desire and manipulation. It seemed an odd, unexpressive directorial choice for such a piece, and for a company with such fine actors. The role of Nijinsky is a killer; he’s on stage for nearly the entire ballet and his solos and duets have no rests. J. Bubenícek looked like a very contemporary dancer: sleek, stretched, dancing with complete control and enormous energy, but the impassive face seldom revealed Nijinsky’s thoughts. With Romola played as a tall, icy Nordic goddess and Diaghilev as a young, willowy blond, that performance left me cold, not to mention confused. I admired the dancers, but I wasn’t moved by them.

Saturday night, O. Bubenícek may not have danced quite as cleanly, but his softer movements seemed more Nijinsky-like and he seemed completely immersed in the character. Heather Jurgensen was a three-dimensional Romola, growing from star struck girl to tender wife. The final pas de deux, before Nijinsky’s complete descent into madness, was gently intense, and one felt each character's love and helplessness.

On Thursday evening, Alexandre Riabko (Nijinsky), Lloyd Riggins (Diaghilev) and Jurgensen (Romola) also gave emotional performances. Riabko is smaller and more compact than the Bubeniceks and so physically a more convincing Nijinsky. More important was the intensity of his acting and his flashes of sanity, showing us Nijinsky as a likable young man capable of experiencing joy. Here, too, Jurgensen’s vulnerability made her an appealing Romola, whether that was the intention or not. (For a long time, Romola Nijinsky was a Ballet Villainess, blamed by many for causing the break with Diaghilev and by some for driving her husband mad. When I first became interested in ballet, I knew people who could barely talk about her civilly. Perhaps Neumeier wants to rehabilitate her. If so, it’s time.)

Riggins had the authority and strength of will to show that aspect of Diaghilev’s character, but the choreography doesn’t allow the dancer to show the older man’s power and taste, nor the artistic relationship between the two men, which was at least as important as the personal. And that is what, at the end, makes it impossible for me to surrender to this Nijinsky. One can take artistic liberties with a life, but how far can one go from reality and still have it be a life, and not merely a ballet about Ye Generic Tortured Artist? There are a lot of details in Neumeier’s Nijinsky, but that is not the same thing as depth or complexity, and dressing young men in floppy overcoats and hot pants (with adorable little brass button fles) when sending them off to fight World War I turns an interesting movement fantasy into a floor show.

There’s definitely a sweep to Nijinsky; it’s driven by an engine. You can watch it as a series of pictures ever-unfolding, building to a structural climax, if not a choreographic one (it’s too segmented for that). Some of the ideas would make an interesting discussion, and look good on paper: for example, the corps dancing the entrance from Bayadere’s Kingdom of the Shades scene (probably representing pre-World War I order) and then a bit of Sacre de printemps (probably representing the horrors of war, plus chaos and madness). Or one could look at it as a suggestion that Petipa caused World War I, I suppose. The notions don’t stand up to examination and the mixing of art and war seems odd. Neumeier takes one of the most moving moments from Nijinsky’s life—his standing on a chair, screaming the counts at the dancers during Sacre’s premiere because the noise from the auditorium was so loud the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra—and uses it to show Nijinsky's trying to stop the chaos around him. That turns an incident in which Nijinsky was the consummate, cool-headed professional, caring about his work and his dancers and doing what he needed to do to fix a real problem into a superficial depiction of madness.

I wish someone who was trained in psychology would write about Nijinsky from that point of view. The dancers are divine. They believe in this; you can see that in every movement they make. The opening night performance was the most polished and well-presented we’ve seen from a ballet company in longer than I can remember (and perhaps the dramatic stiffness of that first night was the result of dancers trying too hard to get everything right). But having Nijinsky roll around on the floor and jerk about in huge, spiky leaps to show madness is clichéd, a stage reality as removed from life as pointing to the ring finger to indicate a desire to wed. The dancing is exciting to watch, but it doesn’t have much to do with schizophrenia, especially a schizophrenic who spent much of his institutional time in a catatonic state. One might say that Neumeier can juxtapose any images he wants because he’s showing you the world through Nijinsky’s eyes, but he doesn't present Nijinsky's point of view consistently. There are a few times when Nijinsky is offstage, or has his back turned to a particular character, and there are some asides, particularly from Romola; she turns to the audience to show us she’s in love and can’t quite believe that this god of the dance returns her love, for example. The scenes with Stanislav, Nijinsky's older brother (brain damaged as the result of a childhood fall and described in Richard Buckle's biography of Nijinsky as "dimwitted" rather than insane) also break the illusional plane, and there's not enough contrast between them to differentiate their conditions (that Stanislav, danced by the excellent Yukichi Hattori, gets the more exciting choroegraphy doesn't help).

One moment that I did find truly moving was Petrushka’s scene in the second act (putting aside the question of why he enters with the soldiers). Both Lloyd Riggins and Ivan Urban gave beautifully detailed performances of Petrushka’s intense, small-souled unhappiness, so much so one wanted to see them in the full ballet. The real one, the one by Fokine. Petrushka couldn’t have survived the war any more than could Neumeier's Nijinsky. Metaphor died in those trenches with the era's poets, replaced by either abstraction or graphic realism. Pull away from life and emotion, or show it as clearly, and often as hideously, as possible; there’s little room for anything in the middle now. But through metaphor, Fokine told Nijinsky’s story more clearly than Neumeier, in about a quarter of the time, and let the dancer's great and battered spirit emerge triumphant in the end.

Photos (both by Holger Badekow)
First:  Otto Bubenícek as Nijinsky.
Second:  Ivan Urban (Diaghilev) and Alexandre Riabko (Nijinsky) in rehearsal.

Read other DVT reviews about Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:

From New York:  Gia Kourlas: Nijinsky: Clichés of Madness
From D.C.:  Clare Croft: Nijinsky: Lost in the Chaos
George Jackson:  Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
March 1, 2004

© 2004 Alexandra Tomalonis




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last updated on March 1, 2004