and the Ballets Russes
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
February 25 and February 28 (matinee), 2004
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson
published 1 March 2004
conception is sweeping. Call it symphonic or cinematic, there is cohesive
movement at the core of John Neumeier's Nijinsky. It has an effect,
it makes a splash, Act 1 more so because it never stops. Transitions are
part of the continuum. Choreography, characterizations and narrative are
The first act's story is simpler. It starts with the opening of Vaclav
Nijinsky's last public performance and goes back in time to the course
of his early life and his career—he was, of course, the new 20th
Century's god of the dance. In the second act, seams show. There were
pauses that had no apparent purpose, there were ebbs in the work's surging
tide. The real world at war intruded in an alien way, not fully fusing
with Nijinsky's extreme choreography, his madness and his brother's demented
state. And, more at one performance than another, the insanity of Nijinsky's
last dance was an anticlimax after the brother's explosion.
Characterization as deployed by Neumeier is of a distinctly modern sort.
There are no traditional heros or villains in the piece. Nor is there
dialectic struggle that expresses personality. People are somewhat enigmatic,
each one defined by appearance as much as anything else. Nijinsky,
with Jiri Bubenicek in the role, is a single, incomprehensible force
of nature as artist, lover and madman. Alexandre Riabko in the part conveyed
an alternation of volatile and tranquil natures. Diaghilev, Nijinsky's
director and lover, is utterly civilized as Neumeier sees him, very much
removed from nature. He also is unbiographically young, handsome and rather
reticent. Ivan Urban in the role was remote temperamentally and by training,
whereas Lloyd Riggins suggested that Diaghilev's behavior was also a matter
of consciously chosen manners. Romola, Nijinsky's wife, in Anna Polikarpova's
performance was a glacier with cracks. Heather Jurgensen (replacing Silvia
Azzoni at the Saturday matinee) was caring and vulnerable, with
an urge to cradle her husband. Nijinsky's brother was completely out of
control in Yukichi Hattori's rendering, but Yohan Stegli's had moderate
References to Nijinsky's roles on stage and off are skillfully interwoven
in Act 1. Jeux, for instance, was supposed to have been a ballet
for three young males but came to the stage with a female:male ratio of
2:1. Neumeier begins with the 2:1 but then reverts to the original notion,
not just scoring a point for dance history but foretelling Nijinsky's
eventual replacement in the affections of Diaghilev by a younger man.
Using Sacre du printemps in Act 2 to incorporate World War 1
and the Nijinsky brothers' states of mind does not work as effectively.
My editor had two questions. Does Neumeier's Nijinsky evoke Diaghilev's
Ballets Russes? And, how does it compare to Maurice Bejart's ballet, Nijinsky,
Clown of God? Neumeier, by melding several ballets in Nijinsky's
mind, intentionally goes against Diaghilev's desire not to repeat himself.
It is a good guess that Diaghilev wanted each ballet to be distinct—which
didn't mean that there were no common threads, no underlying relationships
in principle. Another goal was for every program to be a balanced menu.
Diaghilev hadn't coined that concept but borrowed it from the "soup,
main course, and desert" bills of ballet one-acters popular in European
opera houses at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, refining the
practice for his own purposes.
bound the Diaghilev repertory together despite formal and stylistic variety
was the technical schooling of the company. Initially, the members of
Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were almost exclusively from Russian academies.
Later, when dancers were recruited from diverse sources, it was Enrico
Cecchetti's classes that made them a company—even if not with complete
success. That's where the Hamburg Ballet falls down for me: no company
schooling shows. There are many good individual dancers (Polikarpova,
in particular, does show a classical schooling) but the overall movement
profile is anonymous. Not so is a 1916 photo of Nijinsky on page 4 of
the souvenir book for this program. It pictures him not in a famous pose
or standard exercise but moving by himself, perhaps for himself. He's
dressed in an open shirt of light color, dark and slightly loose gym trousers
to above the ankles, light socks and sandals—not ballet slippers.
Is he at work on one of his experiments, one of his studies? Whatever
the particulars, his pedigree is apparent. From turn of the head, straight
line of the neck, ease of the shoulders and arms, bend of the wrists thru
the slightly angled and gentle stretch of the torso, and from his carefully
cupped hands to his stance on half-toe, Nijinsky is perfectly balanced
yet not static. This is a classical dancer.
Another unifying factor for Diaghilev's repertory was his sensibility
to artforms other than choreography and dance. In the ballets he supervised
the music was not just accompaniment and the visuals were not merely decor.
Everything the eye,ear and mind absorbed was an active ingredient. Still,
there was no confusing Sylphides, Spectre, Scheherezade, Petrouchka,
Faune or Jeux. Each was a distinct experience and remained
so even in productions by latter day Ballet Russe troupes and, too, in
Bejart's Nijinsky ballet I saw just once, and remember that there were
strikingly individual images: sylphs or wilis with skulls instead of live
human features; Suzanne Farrell with parasol, stepping lightly as if from
a Marie Laurencin painting; Jorge Donn, feline and yet gritty as Nijinsky.
Bejart didn't try for Neumeier's sweeping, encompassing movement but dealt
us the images like playing cards from a dealer's deck, with the Nijinsky
figure as the Deity's joker.
There are so many things to enjoy in Neumeier's Nijinsky. The
recreation of the Suvretta House Hotel has ambience. The initial solos
and adagios for Nijinsky suggest that he could be classical doing awkard,
eccentric, distorted dancing. That the Diaghilev and Romola roles are
danced and not just mimed is challenging. That the music from very different
sources fits together remarkably well is crucial. I'd like to see Nijinsky
again in a future season.
other DVT reviews of Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:
York: Gia Kourlas: Nijinsky:
Clichés of Madness
From D.C.: Clare Croft: Nijinsky:
Lost in the Chaos
Alexandra Tomalonis: Nijinsky:
Madness and Metaphor
First: Diaghilev (Ivan Urban) and Nijinsky (Jirí Bubenícek).
Second: The company on stage of the Théâtre du Châtelet
Volume 2, Number 9
March 1, 2004
Jean Battey Lewis
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
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