writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes

Hamburg Ballet
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
February 25 and February 28 (matinee), 2004

by George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson
published 1 March 2004

The 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 fused inextricably.

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 moments.

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.

What 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 recent revivals.

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.

Read other DVT reviews of Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:

From New York:  Gia Kourlas: Nijinsky: Clichés of Madness
From D.C.:  Clare Croft: Nijinsky: Lost in the Chaos
Alexandra Tomalonis:  Nijinsky: Madness and Metaphor

Photos (by Holger Badekow):
First:  Diaghilev (Ivan Urban) and Nijinsky (Jirí Bubenícek).
Second:  The company on stage of the Théâtre du Châtelet

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

© 2004 George Jackson




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last updated on March 1, 2004