L'espace Pierre Cardin
23rd April 2009
In this Ballet Russe centenary year I expected to see a number of tributes to Diaghilev, but the first ballet I was to see marking the anniversary was not wholly complimentary towards the great man.
Mikhail Lavrovsky’s “Nijinsky” has been in the Bolshoi repertoire for some years now and gets performed pretty regularly on mixed bills in Moscow. For this performance in Paris it was preceded by a short work choreographed by d'Ethery Pagava called La Quête danced by Ana Pinto and two male dancers, described as a homage to Serge Lifar. It was a rather sorrowful piece danced with commitment by the three soloists, but I am not familiar enough with Lifar’s oeuvre to say whether it was a reflection of his choreographic style or not. Neither am I that familiar with Mikhail Lavrovsky’s style, my entire knowledge of his choreography being a video of The Tempest with a marvellous cast that included Lavrovsky himself in the roles of both Ferdinand and Prospero and which relied a great deal on special effects only possible on film. Nijinsky however proved to be a very powerful piece, highly dramatic and providing a challenging role for the dancer in the title role.
The ballet begins with two male attendants observing an object on a bench, when it begins to move you realise that beneath the fabric that totally envelopes him is a human being. The attendants slowly remove what turns out to be an over-sized straight jacket and poor mad Nijinsky is revealed. The pathetic creature seems to have no awareness of who he is or what he is, at one point he looks at his toes and examines them in an infantile manner; we know it is Nijinsky, a dancer of legend, but see only a wretched soul completely devoid of reason. He is handed a pair of dance shoes, he puts them on almost in a trance and assuming a balletic pose he is instantly transformed into the noble being he once was. Nijinsky dances a lengthy solo with quotes from Afternoon of a Faune, Scheherazade and Petrushka whilst the attendants hold up posters of him in his most famous roles which he rips to pieces: his art is both his salvation and the cross he bears.
The two lynch pins of Nijinsky’s life were his wife, Romola, and his mentor, Diaghilev, here shown as mortal enemies. Romola dances with her husband and he seems to find respite from his sufferings in her arms. The bond with Diaghilev is also strong and we are in no doubt of the nature of their relationship when Diaghilev holds open his coat to shield him from view as Nijinsky performs some sex act for him. The animosity between Romola and Diaghilev intensifies as Romola knocks Diaghilev’s cane from under him and he raises that same cane to rain blows on her. Nijinsky looks on fearful and bewildered and retreats back into his original state of madness as he is helped back into his straight jacket and the tragedy is complete.
As Nijinsky Denis Medvedev is astonishingly good, he is one of the best dancer-actors the Bolshoi currently possesses and is able to bring out all the facets of a difficult character without lapsing into melodrama. The choreography too is demanding, but Medvedev dances strongly throughout; dressed only in tights, his bare torso is physical perfection contrasting with Nijinsky’s imperfect mental state. Romola is danced by Anna Nakhapetova as a woman hardened by adversity fearlessly fighting (literally) for the man she loves. The pivotal role of Diaghilev was danced by Lavrovsky himself and how wonderful it was to see this great dancer on stage again as he has lost none of his remarkable stage presence and is as intense a performer as he ever was.
I found Nijinsky a compelling work, danced to Rachmaninov’s forceful Isle of the Dead and accompanied in places by readings (in French) from Nijinsky’s famous diary, there was a lot to digest, but the essence of Nijinsky’s tragic life was there even if told in a simplistic way and in a year of celebration it is a reminder that the great artistic endeavour that was the Ballet Russe wasn’t without its casualties.