Arts & Events

National Ballet of Canada’s NIJINSKY A Wild Ride

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 06, 2018 - 02:34:00 PM

Attempting to do justice to the complex, charismatic dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose own diary chronicled his slide into madness as well as his probing metaphysical ideas, is a tall order for anyone. Not long ago, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Robert Wilson grappled with this task and failed miserably, creating only a vacuous vanity show entitled Letters to a Man. However, veteran choreographer John Neumeier’s Nijinsky offers as good an overview of Nijinsky’s career and troubled life as one is likely to get. Neumeier’s Nijinsky premiered in 2000 with The Hamburg Ballet, then was reprised by The National Ballet of Canada in 2013, and came to San Francisco with the Hamburg company in 2013. Now it has reappeared at the War Memorial Opera House for a weeklong run by The National Ballet of Canada.  

Set in 1919 at the time of Vaslav Nijinsky’s last public performance, in the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Neumeier’s Nijinsky presents a dreamlike kaleidoscope of Nijinsky’s hazy recollections of his former triumphs in dance and his love affairs with his mentor, Sergei Diaghilev, and, later, with the woman he married, Romola de Pulsky. Neumeier throws in for good measure some confusing episodes involving Nijinsky’s father, mother, sister, and brother. Though Neumeier probably had good reasons for including this material, I never figured out who was who in these confusing snippets. Granted, the early family drama no doubt played an important part in Nijinsky’s development; but in Neumeier’s treatment it just became a blur. He would have been better advised to stick to the basics. And these basics were Nijinsky as dancer-choreographer, and, on the personal level, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, and Romola de Pulsky. 

Dancing the role of Nijinsky was Guillaume Côté, who gave an intensely moving representation of Nijinsky’s inner drama. Technically, Côté was brilliant. Though his leaps lacked the jaw-dropping, breath-taking magic that was Nijinsky’s signature move, Côté’s lifts, indeed, all the lifts by all the dancers in this production, were marvelous to behold Each lift seemed effortless; and the lifted dancer seemed to glide gracefully to a soft landing, with no break in the flow of continuity. Particularly stunning were Côté’s pas de deux with Heather Ogden as Romola de Pulsky. As for Nijinsky’s interactions with his boss and lover, Sergei Diaghilev, the latter danced with ominous aplomb by Evan McKie, they were full of angular arms and frequent evasions, followed by passionate reconciliations. However, the reconciliations with Diaghilev came to an abrupt end when Nijinsky impulsively married Romola de Pulsky, whom he first met aboard a ship in Argentina. In a pique of jealously at the loss of his lover, Diaghilev fired Nijinsky from Les Ballets Russes.  

Among the many roles Nijinsky performed for Les Ballets Russes, several are prominently represented in Neumeier’s Nijinsky. First and foremost was that of the Golden Slave in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Set to music from movements I, III, and IV of this great work, these episodes featured sinuous movement by Guillaume Côté and elegant group work from the corps de ballet. Nijinsky’s appearance as Petrouchka in Stravinsky’s ballet of that name was suitably both comical and poignant, the latter especially when Petrouchka repeatedly banged his head against the War Memorial proscenium. Noticeably absent, however, were any but the most remote allusions to Nijinsky’s most famous role in his own choreography of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un Faune. Moreover, only passing reference was made to Nijinsky’s choreography of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which created a scandal at its 1913 Paris premiere and cemented Les Ballets Russes as the spearhead of modernism. Conductor David Briskin led the SF Ballet Orchestra in a fine rendition of the music chosen by Neumeier to accompany his Nijinsky, which included music by Chopin, Robert Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Shostakovich.  

Nijinsky’s final descent into madness, coming at the same time as the horrors of World War I became known, was very poignantly portrayed, first, by a mother-figure pulling the pathetic figure of Nijinsky as child on a sled, then by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola de Pulsky, carting away the wracked and broken body of what was once the beautiful Nijinsky on a dilapidated sled, as warlike music blared from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11. This, indeed, brought to a dramatic, and immensely sad, close the ballet Nijinsky, in which choreographer John Neumeier valiantly strove to highlight both the genius and torment of Vaslav Nijinsky.