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Hamburg Ballet

Nijinsky as Text


by Jeff Kuo

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

Simply stated, John Neumeier's biography ballet, "Nijinsky," is not for the casual ballet goer. Almost every choreographic sequence of "Nijinsky" is woven through with references to the canon of early modern ballet and fin de siecle culture: the homosexual subtext of "Spectre de la rose," the coded erotica of "Jeux," the savagery of the Paris beau monde – in Neumeier's conception, these intertextual references coalesce around the public and private fantasy that is Nijinsky.

As unbiased as we all strive to be, I must admit to having fallen short of the ideal this time. Biography as a genre seems more the province of prose-like forms like novels, histories, drama, and film – Tacitus, Suetonius, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy rather than the Old Testament, Gautier, E.T.A. Hoffman, etc. It is the difference between history and fantasy. In "Nijinsky," Neumeier rises above the requirements of the biography genre in his insight that Nijinsky's life is in many ways a fantasy. Nijinsky isn't so much the dancer from Kiev but a cultural nodal point around whom legends of rebellion and romance, success and tragedy developed.

That we are all implicated in the cult of Nijinsky is made plain by the choreographer's tactic of beginning the ballet without curtains. As the audience takes their seats, we can all see the clearly lit set of the St. Moritz Suvretta Hotel where Nijinsky gave his last public performance in 1919. The ballet collapses us with Nijinsky's last audience as we watch men costumed in coats & tails and women in evening dress  take their seats just as we took ours. Nijinsky (Otto Bubenicek) enters. He performs an unfamiliar dance, agonized and eerie. The stage audience looks uncomprehendingly. As some prepare to leave, Nijinsky changes character and dances snippets from his famous roles – the Rose, the Golden Slave, Till Eulenspiegel. Now both the stage and the house audience recognize the legendary Nijinsky. It is a lesson in the perils of celebrity.

But, Neumeier has greater ambitions for his choreography. "Nijinsky" the ballet opens new perspectives by realizing hidden subtexts and coded sexual references. The relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev (played as a blond Svengali by Ivan Urban) is reimagined as the Girl and the Rose from "Le Spectre de la Rose" with Diaghilev as the Girl and Nijinsky as the Rose. References to "L'Apres-midi d'un faune" depict twin fantasies of naïve love in Nijinsky's shipboard romance with Romola de Pulsky (Heather Jurgensen). When Pulsky sees only the Faune, it is plain that she mistakes the legend for the man; and, when Nijinsky as the Faune enacts the Faune's fetishistic lust, we see that he, too, sees only a fantasy of profane love.

But, even beyond the deliciousness of its psychosexual dramatics, there are startling images suggesting a rebuttal of modern dance's critique of ballet's disengagement with real life. The famous 1913 riot at the premiere of "Le Sacre du printemps" at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées becomes the orgy and slaughter sequence from "Scheherazade": men in tails and waistcoats rush, grope, and flail about with ladies in wraps, furs, and feather adorned caps -- a commentary on exactly how thin the veneer of civilization is over the cultural elite.

For comparison, Millicent Hodson quotes Nicolas Roerich on "Sacre":

I remember how during the first performance in Paris, in 1913, the entire audience whistled and roared so that nothing could even be heard. Who knows, perhaps, at this very moment they were enjoying themselves with the same emotions of primitive people. But this savage primitiveness had nothing in common with the refined primitiveness of our ancestors, for whom … symbol, and refinement of gesture were great and sacred concepts (1930)

The Sacrifice from "Le Sacre du Printemps" is recast with German infantrymen as the primitives. The fate of the Chosen Virgin can be read then as a critique of the barbarity of war, an ironic comment on the ritual nature of war, or perhaps even a pointed criticism comparing ballet to militarism. When Yukichi Hattori as Nijinsky's ill fated brother, Stanislav, whose madness anticipated Nijinsky's own descent into schizophrenia, repeats the Chosen Virgin's last frenetic dance, it as an exasperatingly long sequence of fits and thrashings on the floor. His virtual state of status epilepticus is a fate that can be read as emblematic of the extent to which the sacrifice of the Chosen Virgin stands for fin de siecle civilization itself.

Despite its hypertheatricality, "Nijinsky" is often less a ballet than a text for a graduate seminar. Neumeier's choreography is so densely textured that I worry for its general intelligibility.  It does indeed repay the effort to watch and decode its many references, but sometimes I wonder if it doesn't ask for too much.  Compared to the jaded, cynical Parisian public of 1913, I believe our age is more likely to express its jadedness and cynicism by falling asleep than yelling and shouting.

Cast credits include a smart and bright Elizabeth Loscavio as Bronislava Nijinska, Laura Cazzaniga as Tamara Karsavina, and Joëlle Boulogne as Eleonora Bereda, Nijinsky's mother. Sets, costumes, and lighting concepts were credited to Neumeier.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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

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