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Emerging Arts Critics Programme

Nijinsky

A Haunting Portrait of Love, Loss and the Descent into Madness By Colleen Snell
  • Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky by John Neumeier / Photo by Bruce Zinger
  • Artists of the ballet behind Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky by John Neumeier / Photo by Bruce Zinger

In ballet, as in life, a dancer never knows which performance will be their last. The National Ballet of Canada’s (NBoC) Nijinsky opens with this dark thought. Act I begins at the Suvretta Hotel ballroom on January 19, 1919, on the day dance icon Vaslav Nijinsky performed in public for the final time. Men and women in period dress enter the stage to find their seats. The tone is expectant, excited. We are all waiting for Nijinsky. There is a thrill of excitement as he enters, swathed in a white kimono.

Nijinsky is a two-act ballet choreographed and designed by the director of the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier. The production is darkly realist, bursting with raw, unconcealed emotion. It is a non-linear journey through both Nijinsky’s inner and outer worlds. Historically speaking, Nijinsky was one of ballet’s first-ever male “rock stars.” In his time he was renowned for his charisma, athleticism and unbridled sexuality. Today, he is remembered as a dance genius whose gifts were eclipsed by his mental and emotional instability: he was eventually committed to an asylum, putting an abrupt end to his career. In Neumeier’s production figures from Nijinsky’s life appear in the form of his wife, Romola, his family members, his contemporary and rival Leonid Massine, as well as the forebodingly powerful impresario Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev, founder of the famous Ballets Russes, was a curator and patron who had a formidable influence in the developing careers of many visual artists, musicians and dancers. Neumeier’s ballet revives six of Nijinsky’s roles, which are played by different male soloists. There are appearances from the Harlequin (Carnaval), the Spirit of the Rose (Spectre de la rose), the Golden Slave (Schéhérazade), the Young Man (Jeux), the Faun (L’Après-midi d’un faune) and Petrushka.

Vaslav Nijinsky is embodied with passion and sensitivity by Guillaume Côté, who enraptured the audience on opening night with his tremendous technical prowess. The production also highlighted Côté’s acting ability; he portrayed the psychological highs and lows of his character with naked vulnerability and a kind of painfully exposed emotion rarely seen in ballet. On opening night, Xiao Nan Yu as Romola Nijinsky was mesmerizing in floating fabrics and a striking red dress. Male dancers were celebrated in the ballet with Dylan Tedaldi (who momentarily stole the show as Nijinsky’s brother) and a magnificent performance by the athletic and sinuous Keiichi Hirano, who portrayed Nijinsky as both the Faun and Golden Slave. Diaghilev was played by Evan McKie with resonating presence and authority.

John Neumeier is passionate and knowledgeable when it comes to Nijinsky – he created the sets, costumes and lighting, and the choreography is rich with moments inspired by Nijinsky’s own performances, as well as Nijinsky’s choreographic trademarks. Sharp movements, flexed or turned-in feet appear and reappear. The Faun struts across the stage, moving along one flat plane as if pulled from a Grecian urn. The musical score, which includes works by Chopin, Schumann, and Shostakovich, hauntingly sets the tone. This ballet is accessible to audiences without a solid background in dance history; however those unfamiliar with Nijinsky’s biography may find themselves struggling to grasp certain references. But, even without this background or a glance at the helpful program notes, audiences will empathetically connect with Nijinsky’s fall from grace, his turbulent love life and his navigation of the cracks between madness and genius.

The strength of the ballet lies not in its biographical or historical references – it is far from a precise retelling of Nijinsky’s life – but in its fragmentation and distortion of fact. Chairs appear as a theme in the ballet, conjuring metaphors about our personal audiences. Sometimes Nijinsky himself occupies this chair, reminding us that life can slip beyond our control, and we are merely audiences in our own lives–unable to change or influence events. One such moment occurs in the second act when Nijinsky, standing on a chair, cries out the counts of a dance to soldiers who ignore his cues.

Similar metaphors emerge from Nijinsky’s relationship with his mentor and lover, the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who appears as a manipulative puppet-master. Themes of male love and eroticism are obvious – far more interesting and subtle is the dance of power, abuse, ownership and objectification, often a compelling undercurrent in the work. These themes, pulled from a biographical context, have great potential to resound far beyond their historic point of origin. Yet the ballet is titled Nijinsky, and that is what it is – a tormented, fragmented narrative that very nearly transcends its own portrait of this mad genius. In the end, this ballet may be most sensitively summarized in the words of NBoC Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer, who described the production as a plea for compassion toward those with mental illness and “a prayer for people who see the world in such dark terms.”~

The Emerging Dance Critics Programme is a partnership with The National Ballet of Canada, grounded in The Dance Current’s educational mandate. Reading Writing Dancing is one of The Dance Current’s educational programs, providing workshops, seminars, mentorship and professional development to emerging and established dance writers alike. As part of our commitment to the field, we partner with like-minded organizations, such as The National Ballet of Canada, to educate dance readers and dance writers, providing public access to dance art and culture, and facilitating dance literacy and appreciation.

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