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Hamburg Ballet

Neumeier's Nijinsky - Beautiful and Haunting


by Ed Lippman

February 2004 -- Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, California

John Neumeier takes on a daunting subject. To accurately portray the character of Vaslaw Nijinsky would be difficult enough, to create a piece that delves into the mind of a mad, creative genius is another challenge altogether. An undertaking full of potential to thrill and amaze, “Nijinsky” delivers for the eyes as well as the imagination in ways pleasing and unexpected.

I purposely read nothing about this ballet before seeing it this weekend. I wanted to experience it unspoiled by others’ impressions. So when a lone pianist began playing Chopin’s Prelude No. 20 in C Minor in the Suvretta House Hotel ballroom I was waiting to see what surprises lay in store. The next few hours took me on a journey not so much through the life of Nijinsky as I expected, but through the dark workings of a beautiful, haunted mind.

Tormented by loves lost, lives twisting away in maddening agony, remembrance of greatness and the ugly realities of a world gone askew, Nijinsky recollects his demons, his family, shining moments and the most bitter pains. And while on the surface this is a historical fictionalization of a moment in the dancer’s final dance, the piece works on so many levels its entirety could be missed with only one viewing. Beautifully layered, “Nijinsky” is a remarkably conceived piece of dance theater, its themes woven with great care throughout, never straying far from its center while managing to find sufficient room to explore each of its intricate plots.

This piece struck me in many ways as I found myself seeing aspects of my own life seemingly played across the stage. Arguably we could all find something personal buried within this story. Have we not felt a great loss at some point in our lives? What artist hasn’t looked back at their life without thinking they were better once, younger, stronger? All of us find ourselves at times dreaming of things that were, and they always seem just a bit more impressive when looked at through the rosy glasses of time. These thoughts alone are enough to make us all feel a bit “mad” for awhile. One could say Nijinsky, as he recollects his own greatness, dances for all of us as we confront the sobering issue of aging and our own mortality.

It also makes me consider, was his madness indeed genetic or was it imposed? A creative talent of such magnitude stifled by a world at war, weary with the loss of great love, a brother driven mad, brimming with a capacity to create beautiful, fleeting moments -- I ask myself if I had such diametrically opposing forces coursing through my mind, would I, too, not go mad?

And at the same time we see a world teetering on the brink of chaos. A war no one understood brought about to serve the scheming of the powers that be, economies struggling, people reeling from strained class relations -- this was Europe in 1919. It sounds remarkably like the world today which is why the second act rings so powerfully. Is it merely Nijinsky’s view of the world around him in his time or it Neumeier making a less than subtle statement about the world in which we live?

And the themes were reflected smoothly and powerfully through the use of sets and lighting. The ballroom pulls apart as Nijinsky falls deeper into his isolation and imagination. At the end of the second act, it comes together again but jaggedly, not entirely right in perfect harmony with Nijinsky’s shattered mind. Circles, drawn again and again in Nijinsky’s laterl life are used as stark symbols. A large circle rises, dominating the scene as his career takes off. It’s shadowed by a smaller circle, forever eclipsed yet drawn to its larger partner like a faithful moon. Representing his brother Stanislav, the circle moves around its larger counterpart but remains always overlapped, hidden behind the others greatness. And when Stanislav himself gives in to his madness, his circle rises out of sight, gone from the stage. The circle theme returns at the end of the second act as the faithfully reproduced art deco chandelier appears as the ballroom reassembles itself. Oddly disjointed now, four circles clearly visible. Nijinsky dominates the space via the large circle and three others can be seen within the chandelier. Bronislava, Stanislav and Diaghilev?

While the dancers demonstrated remarkable technique and stamina, I was truly struck by how well they were able to communicate the subtleties and complexities of the characters so clearly. The role of Nijinsky experiences nothing short of an emotional juggernaut over the course of the evening. This must be as much a dream part for any dancer as it is a personally terrifying experience. The journey is as demanding emotionally as it is taxing physically and Alexandre Raibko as Nijinsky laid his soul bare for all to see. And it was disturbingly pleasing to actually feel the power of his most famous roles played out on stage. Arsen Megrabian’s Spirit of the Rose and Jiri Bubenicek’s Golden Slave are as masculine as they are sexually ambiguous, daring men and women alike not to be tempted by them.

It was this feeling which led my guest to comment afterward that he found the piece “vulgar.” I find it interesting that nearly a century later his creations can still evoke the same reactions that made his work controversial at their premiere.

Neumeier has succeeded in creating a work which embodies the dancers life and his works. It is easy to see why Nijinsky caused such a stir and remains so fondly remembered.

Edited by Jeff.

See also "Cinderella, Hamburg-style": Interview with Ivan Urban and Anna Polikarpova of Hamburg Ballet.

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