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Hamburg Ballet

A Rite of Spring


by Azlan Ezaddin

February 13 -14, 2004 -- Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, California

Near the end of John Neumeier's epic ballet on one of the greatest artists in modern history, the world around Vaslaw Nijinsky dissolves into a surrealistic nightmare, with walls coming apart at the corners and well-manicured ladies and gentleman screaming about like chimpanzees. As Nijinsky descends into insanity, Neumeier is suggesting to us that in the artist's eyes, it is the world that has gone mad. The choreographer however may also be suggesting by lining the stage with dancers in World War I German uniforms that maybe that perspective is not all that absurd -- WWI was by most historical accounts a devastatingly unneccessary war where nothing was gained but much was lost. Who really were the crazy ones?

"Nijinsky," the ballet, is full of allusive images and ideas, some obvious but many subtle, so much so that it can become intimidating to even knowledgeable balletomanes. Every phrase of movement, every articulation of a limb, every bar of music, every piece of costume, every prop, and every change in lighting -- all but the music designed by the choreographer -- suggests a reference to an event or a person in Nijinsky's life. A two-dimensional stride evokes one of his greatest creations, "The Afternoon of a Faun"; the mimicking of spectacles with fingers alludes to an encounter with Charlie Chaplin; a fragment of music from Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony makes a reference to the Bloody Sunday uprising of 1905 in which a young Nijinsky suffered a gash to the head. It is inconceivable to discern every single reference even after three viewings, let alone one. (A word of advice: try to recognize the lead dancers and read up on Nijinsky's ballets before going -- these will aid in following the references.)

The central figure is of course Nijinsky himself, a role, though danced with the same steps for each performance, is interpreted in individual ways. Czech dancer, Otto Bubenícek, who along with his twin Jiri rose rapidly up the ranks of the company, is a compelling Vaslaw, gripping the audience in his personal madness and anguish while Alexandre Riabko, who alternates the role with Bubenícek for the US tour, appears a tad more overtly suggestive and longing for familial love. Whatever the interpretation, however, both dancers are more than capable in reaching inside this tortured soul and projecting aspects of his inner psyche to the back of theater, eerily reminiscent some might say of the way Nijinsky's creations took over his reality on stage.

Indubitably, no one dancer can portray all of Nijinsky in one performance. So Neumeier uses a device, the hallucination, to conjure up images of the different aspects of the artist's life, represented by eight dancers in several different roles, the most central perhaps being the Faun from "L'Après-midi d'un faune" that appears for extended periods of times, including an imaginary pas de trois with the "real-life" Nijinsky and his wife-to-be Romola. Carsten Jung is captivating as the Faun and not just to Romola, danced by Heather Jurgensen Friday night and Anna Polikarpova Saturday afternoon in a last-minute emergency cast change; his intensity reaches the entire audience as he enters and exits and reenters at critical intersections in the hallucination, most of the time in the very recognizable two-dimensional vocabulary abstracted but not directly quoted from "L'Après-midi d'un faune."

The eventual marriage to Romola, on impulse, turned into a sham and was at best dysfunctional, made clear by the cross-legged embrace between the couple as they roll on the floor, as if to deny a physical intimacy. Both Jurgensen and Polikarpova are believable as first the starstruck admirer who is transfixed by the beauty of the onstage Nijinsky and then later a distraught wife who resorts to infidelity but sticks by her man through his bad times. Polikarpova with her natural beauty and elegance offers a decidedly tragic portrayal of natural talents wasted.

While the embrace between the married couple is unfulfilling, the physical interface between the artist and his impressario, Serge de Diaghilev, is passionate and unrestrained. Tall and blond, Ivan Urban delivers an almost Norse god-like Diaghilev who clearly pulls the artist's strings. It is into his arms that Nijinsky climbs time and time again. But just as Diaghilev's focus moved from Michel Fokine as his lead choreographer in the Ballet Russes to Nijinsky, he did so again with emotional consequences when his attention wavered towards a young Leonide Massine, who curiously is played by the same dancer representing a young Nijinsky as the tennis player from the ballet "Jeux."

Unhappy in marriage and discarded by Diaghilev, the artist retreated to his family. And so the theme of the inner family unit is played out several times in this ballet. The artist, his mother, his brother and his sister dance together in harmony but rarely touching. In a heartbreaking sequence, when Nijinsky reaches out his hands in an attempted embrace, first his sibling and then his mother enters between his outstretched arms but not touching. This is repeated three times before the three family members eventually disappear, slowly, out of view.

The representation of his family is critical to knowing Nijinsky. His brother Stanislav, danced on high adrenaline by Yukichi Hattori Friday and Saturday nights, represented his fear. Stanislav preceded Vaslav into mental illness and Vaslav addressed the fear of his own fate by rejecting his brother and his insanity. But there was no denying the brother's illness; Hattori danced spastically -- a performance that led to nearly the loudest applause each night during the bows -- leaving no doubt in the audience's mind of Stanislav's illness.

His sister Branislava Nijinska, herself a dancer and choreographer of renown, was his guinea pig. He exacted the most demanding performances from her to the point of cruelty. This is portrayed in the ballet by a barking Bubenícek directing Elizabeth Loscavio in a nude unitard in a fiery and punishing dance, a la "Le Sacre de Printemps," amidst male dancers clad in German uniforms.

There are so many inside references that "Nijinsky" seems aimed at serious balletomanes -- and for those who are, this work can be extremely satisfying -- but the casual balletgoer can also perhaps be impressed by its physicality -- and the strength of this very international company -- even if there is a lack of pretty and clearly bravura dancing to applaud. However, the semblance of a narrative that is beyond the grasp of most audiences may force many to search for clues and end up frustrated. In the finale, Neumeier offers this segment of the audience a break: a highly dramatic depiction of Nijinsky's last dance, "The War." Now here was something people could cheer and give a standing ovation for -- which they did.

Edited by Jeff.

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

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