Emerging Arts Critics Programme

A Magical Madness: Nijinsky

By Eve van Eeden
  • Guillaume Côté with Artists of the Ballet in Nijinsky / Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic

Aristotle once said: “No great genius ever existed without a touch of madness”. Celebrating the man who personified this expression, Nijinsky is brought to life by The National Ballet of Canada. Originally created for the Hamburg Ballet in 2000 by choreographer John Neumeier, this captivating cacophony of characters returned to Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre on November 22, following a successful European tour.

A biographical ballet, Nijinsky tells the story of Vaslav Nijinsky, the world-renowned dancer and choreographer, destined to insanity. Rejecting the traditional role of noble princes in classical repertoires, he explored eroticism through androgynous movements that gave raw expression to his emotions on stage. Deeply concerned with the grim state of society, he believed himself to be challenged with reuniting people with their feelings.

Nijinsky’s career was notoriously brief, ending with a final performance titled The Wedding with God, at Suvretta House in 1919. Neumeier anchors his ballet in this event and, as Nijinsky recalls prominent parts of his life, various events, people, characters and ballets from his past blend seamlessly with his last performance. While it’s not always easy to follow the references, Neumeier’s piece successfully encapsulates Nijinsky’s deteriorating state of mind.

The performance begins informally, making the setting oddly realistic. As patrons of The National Ballet entered the theatre, they were greeted by a neoclassical ballroom and pianist (Andrei Streliaev) playing softly on stage. Chopin’s “Funeral March” aptly foreshadows what is to come. Patrons were still chatting happily as artists of the ballet began to appear on stage. Bright, monotone stage lights, depict everyday life. Amid twentieth-century costumes of black and blue, Nijinsky’s wife, Romola (Heather Ogden) dressed in red, draws focus. Short steps and rapid pauses make her nervousness tangible and a scream from back stage tells the audience the performance really has begun.

Nijinsky (Guillaume Côté) makes a painfully slow entrance. The agonizing silence is so powerful that an unfortunate cell phone ring did not stir the audience. With movements somewhat reserved, Côté finally begins to dance. It takes a second to realize that his apparent unwillingness to jump, something Nijinsky was famous for, is an artistic expression. By the way his arms stretch, Côté gives physical expression to lingering, drawn out silences. By the sequence’s third repeat, Nijinsky wills himself to be the performer everyone loves.

Act I portrays Nijinsky’s legendary and controversial past performances. Neumeier cleverly juxtaposes flat, linear movements for Côté with frivolous, flowing choreography for Francesco Gabriele Frola as The Golden Slave and the Faun, as well as for Naoya Ebe as The Harlequin and Spirit of the Rose, to show how Nijinsky allowed the characters he portrayed to change his very being. Nijinsky’s brother, Stanislav (Dylan Tedaldi), appears in a straight jacket throughout the ballet, alluding to his own mental instability. Also appearing as Nijinsky’s shadows, Tedaldi’s and Ebe’s performances were particularly commanding. Together, Côté, Ebe and Tedaldi create a trio so perfectly in sync that it feels like it can only exist in an abstract space, such as a mind.

Nijinsky reaches the epitome of insanity as Act II begins with soldiers permeating the stage, and Stanislav death. One expects a heavy orchestra to announce the approaching war but instead the music is slow with prolonged, isolated melodic passages. The entrance of soldiers is ominous but clear with intent, as war most often is. The corps de ballet moves in unison, deliberately, like a machine.

Neumeier’s intelligent lighting concept provides the most powerful imagery to depict Nijinsky’s unstable state of mind. White light recalls sanatoriums and its stark, unnatural feel depicts a state of aloneness. To exaggerate this, a single chair with its back facing the audience is left on stage. Lighting also changes subtly to a more sinister hue whenever Serge Diaghilev’s ghost, excellently danced by Evan McKie, appears.

Agonizing music throughout the performance creates anticipation that the uncomfortable dissonance will transition into the sweet melodies characteristic of classic ballets. David Briskin excellently commands his orchestra through Neumeier’s choices from Chopin and Schumann to Rimsky-Korsokov and Shostakovich. Tragic-sounding harp, violin and oboe passages reflect Nijinsky’s isolation and confusion. Occasionally the frantic dance steps do not match the music and this adds to the portrayal of Nijinsky’s fragmented mind.

Prominent percussion introduces a stark contrast and the dance transitions rapidly into a powerful culmination of unified jetés and jagged arm movements. Nijinksy’s tortured soul gives loud expression on stage and the music becomes briefly harmonized before turning dissonant again. Neumeier ends the ballet in a silent frenzied mess of colour with all characters and set elements present on stage.

Neumeier’s involvement in all production elements enhances the choreography, and excellent execution from the host of principal dancers reinforces this powerful ballet. Had Aristotle ever seen Nijinsky, he would have had to agree that Neumeier created a magical madness.


The National Ballet of Canada performs Nijinsky from November 22 through 26 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.

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