Nijinsky—the mere name conjures up images of breath taking leaps, dazzling stage presence, bravura performances, groundbreaking choreography, and descent into madness. All this and more was evident at the Hamburg Ballet’s rare visit here at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance this past weekend. Choreographer John Neumeier brought the renowned company, which he has directed for the past 40 years, to Chicago for only 2 performances, following which they head to Orange County and San Francisco, California.
Nijinsky (1889-1950) tells the story of the famous dancer-choreographer in dreamlike sequences, beginning with his last performance in a ballroom in Switzerland in 1919 after which he spent the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions. Neumeier captures the essence of this hypnotic star of the early 20th century dance world in a full length ballet through his visualizations, memories and hallucinations during this last performance. This is an evocation of the brilliant but troubled artist’s life and was first choreographed in 2000 for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Russian dancer’s death.
After a rather slow start the dancer’s iconic roles are portrayed by 6 different Nijinskys: Harlequin, in “Carnaval”, the Spirit of the Rose in “Spectre de la Rose”, the Golden Slave in “Scheherazade”, sensuously danced by Thiago Bordin to the mesmerizing music of Rimsky-Korsakov, the young man in “Jeux”, the Faun in “L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune”, and Petrushka. Alexandre Riabko brings strong technique and dramatic flair to the role of Nijinsky. In creating this work Neumeier brings to the stage Nijinsky’s mentor and lover Serge Diaghilev and their breakup, his wife Romola and her infidelity, his sister Bronislava, and his brother Stanislaw, who was institutionalized at an early age. In Act II, as his madness increases, he retreats further into himself and conjures the brutality of World War I. Powerful though the images are and even though they fill the deep stage with the dynamic and pulsing corps de ballet it is sometimes slow going. Nevertheless, the ballet is filled with emotion and dramatic texture.
The prolific Neumeier excels in unique reinventions of classic story ballets like “Swan Lake”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Romeo and Juliet” and more, but farther afield—think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” and Alexander Dumas fils’ “The Lady of the Camellias”— that have dramatic complexity but also that dreamlike quality. To these last 2 he has altered or added to the original stories, thereby making them more intriguing and keeping the viewer on his or her toes, as he infuses all his work, including Nijinsky, with an emotional depth and power that draw the viewer into the story. His inventive choreographic style-unusual but seemingly effortless, silky lifts that leave one wondering how they were achieved-and undulating spirals weave movement under and through one body to another in elegant lyricism.
He must portray Nijinsky’s own sometimes flowing but often angular and erotic style, especially in the beautifully realized “Faun,” who keeps slowly pacing in and out of the action in the familiar, highly stylized walk. Neumeier’s passion for Nijinsky dates back to when he was a student in Milwaukee in the ‘50s and found a book on the dancer at his local library, leading to a lifelong interest in the remarkable dancer/choreographer and accumulating an enormous collection of his painting, drawings and memorabilia. Coming to Chicago must bring back many memories of his early days when he would travel here to take dance classes with Sybil Shearer or storied Bentley Stone and Walter Camryn.
Evoking images of the Faun, Spirit of the Rose and Petrushka, as well as The Rite of Spring made me want to see more of the actual ballets, for as a choreographer Nijinsky really paved the way for modern ballet. His “Afternoon of a Faun” to music by Claude Debussy, and “The Rite of Spring” to the score by Igor Stravinsky, which outraged the public, were, and are still today, two of the most daring and innovative ballets ever created, with a different and specific movement language developed for each. Audiences of the day were either amazed or shocked by this new type of dance language created for the Ballet Russes.
Chicago is fortunate to have had this wonderful company, led by an exceptional choreographer here to perform its iconic work, Nijinsky. I am only sorry the company was here for only 2 performances. I hope we see more of Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet.
For more information on Neumeier and the Hamburg Ballet go to: http://www.hamburgballett.de/e/
Photos are by Holger Badekow