Hamburg Brings a Resounding ‘Nijinsky’
John Neumeier, the choreographer whose Nijinsky was hosted by San Francisco Ballet in its second program of the season, has so much to share about the pioneering dancer Vaclav Nijinsky, whose life has become such an obsession to this choreographer that he has spent his own fortune acquiring a collection of the dancer’s effects. In a mission derived from that same obsession, Neumeier also wants his audience to fully take in this artist cum madman, the male eponym that most people associate with ballet during its troubled adolescence.
An impression is left from the moment we enter the War Memorial Opera House because there is no curtain, and the Neumeier-designed set that hosts the first half of this “it’s complicated” telling of Nijinsky’s personal and professional life, imagined through the eyes of the dancer himself, is on full display. The set is a two-tiered salon, each level separated by an ornate balustrade that contrasts with the Bauhaus modernity of the rest of the décor, which includes as its centerpiece a black and white double-disc chandelier, where the lights hang in bubble-square Lucite cubes. Neumeier has suffused the stage with white light, an effect that he also favors in his production of The Little Mermaid.
The dancers are dressed in formal attire, and enter randomly. It is as if we ourselves come upon the scene in media res, encountering excerpts from dream sequences, watershed events, while introduced to significant personalities known to the dancer or created by him prior to his thirty-year descent into madness. Neumeier shows us a Nijinsky who sees a world going mad over the course of his lifetime, and the nearly two hour piece ends with a carnet of the carnage that was World War I.
Very much like a pampered child who naively knows only one role in life: as the center of attention at every one of his family’s social gatherings, Vaslav Nijinksy danced by the extraordinarily gifted Alexandre Riabko, makes his entrance swathed in white, in a costume that looks to be half burka and half toga. He slowly descends the stairway connecting the two levels and fixes his gaze above the heads of the audience. He sheds his outer garments to reveal a sleek black cropped jacket and pants. Moments of stillness offer the only pauses in the unrelenting choreography that Neumeier devotes to telling a story that is in equal parts the history, illusion, delusion, social commentary, creative epiphany, intimacies and betrayals of the dancer whose stratospheric jumps descended into a mania that consigned him to an asylum. He faces the audience during those rare silent moments, as if looking for evidence that he is fully seen.
To that end, he is prepared to please the assemblage with what they may or should expect from him. Off comes the jacket, and Riabko begins a continuum of classical enchaînements that demonstrate his mastery, as he simultaneously winks at and upbraids the courtly formality that fathered them. A maelstrom of dancing ushers in a lavish assortment of new and evolving shapes, styles and genres that were to characterize Dance Theater in the opening decades of the 20th Century.
This company impresses with its intimate connection to theatrical whimsy and astute technique. We don’t see anything quite like it in the United States. The viewer could easily scroll past the fact that the dancers’ bodies are a collection of sculptured artifacts because there is an utter absence of self-consciousness in how they present themselves. One never gets the sense that they are self-watching in an imaginary rehearsal studio mirror. Rather, they seem to be using their eyes to search out a path to the collective sensibility of the audience, all the more apparent because the house lights don’t go down until two men, perfectly-suited to one another, in matelote midi-blouse shirts, dance a jaunty Hornpipe. A masked Harlequin (in Carnaval), danced impeccably by Alexandr Trusch, follows them. (Later, Kiran West dances the same role.) Nijinsky joins Harlequin for a demanding combination of jumps and turns.
Hèléne Bouchet as Romula Nijinsky, his Wife, advances downstage. Dressed in red, she is the eyeful who should be sexually irresistible. After all, how else, why else, would an otherwise gay-oriented fellow veer off course from the safe harbor of a relationship with his mentor, the impresario Serge Diaghilew (danced magisterially by Carlsten Jung)? Up to this point, accompaniment is deceptively sparse—with the Chopin and Schumann pieces, the familiar if masterful ballet studio fodder played by an onstage pianist. Now the full orchestra takes on a score that also includes excerpts from Rimsky-Korsakov, and Shostakovich, as both the plot of the ballet and its orchestration reach for and ultimately achieve more complexity. Another dancer in white, in a simpler shroud-like wrap, rolls on the floor from one wing toward the other. This is Nijinsky’s brother. He is lifted and goes limp, and one cannot help but flash on an image of the Sick Man of Europe that characterized the mitosis of the Balkan states. As women enter, Nijinsky almost slumps over the balustrade to embrace Diaghilew. Two couples dance classical duets, and in the fishbowl-like bubble that the salon guests peer into, dancers in black tunis recreate Duncan-like Greek-classical mimetic steps as Diaghilew holds court like a tribune at center stage. We have met the world within, and are about to discover the world outside of Nijinsky’s safe haven.
The set changes to a black backdrop, and we see a male chorus wearing morning coats and high silk hats, wrapped as they are in what was virtually the standard of their social class in that period. In contrast, comes a showcase of interludes featuring characters from Nijinsky’s ballets with titles inspired by nature, such as Afternoon of the Faun and Specter of the Rose, or from curious scenes of everyday life, such as in Jeux and Petruschka. With the appearance of men bathed in red light and wearing harem pants, we are transported, both in the orbit of dance style and geography, to more exotic locales. The score is broad enough to embrace the totality of what Neumeier has brought to the stage—a fabulous palette of color, costume, and dedicated dancing.
The use of levels in the ever-changing salon that Riabko keeps returning to, creates necessary homing moments for the piece and the dancers in it, at the same time that said home never feels or looks to be the same place twice. The coming together of the choreography with the stagecraft, in which sets are inventive without being intrusive, opens the road to authentic ballet dancing, and makes this a textural contribution to which the dancers respond with the best theatrical choices. By intermission, we know them as artists to the marrow of their and our bones. We know them as a company.
And what about the legend of Nijinsky, whose leaps are to have spirited him to freedom, when, in fact, he descended into the lower depths? Do we redact our idea of him to be more in keeping with Neumeier’s impassioned interpretation?
The dancer emerges through a life-sized hoop balanced on a chair. To violin accompaniment, he strikes classical poses that he then turns neoclassical by exaggerating an accent or body part. He dips and turns, retaining full command throughout, as a metronome offsets the violin imprecations with its reliable tic-tock. In The Two Men duet, the hoop ascends like a full moon. The Two men, Silvano Ballone and Dario Franconi, face each other, then engage in lifts and contrarily in a downward dog confrontation with the floor. They roll over each other and then one drops the other deliberately.
Nijinsky can’t help but be at war with himself over his sexuality: Unlike the rest of society, his romantic life is in harmony with the aesthetic qualities he admires around him, and the characteristics that identify us sexually, seem no more fixed for him than the ever-changing furniture of home. Others are not so democratic in their vision, and so a powerful man, his Mentor Diaghilew, dumps him when he marries his bride Romula, who finds herself looking beyond their marriage for sexual and sensual refreshment. To Nijinsky, it’s a mad world after all, and he is its only rational inhabitant.
There are so many female characters in Nijinsky’s entourage: why is there so little to say about them here? The women dancers bring it on! They take the roles of Bronislava (Patricia Tichy), Nijinsky’s sister who danced, taught and choreographed, and Tamara Karsavina (Silvia Azzoni), a ballerina-enchantress in her time. Tichy is sleek, and Azzoni is possessed of an extraordinary pair of feet, but unlike the men, who have been given palpable personalities of their own by Neumeier, the female characters are drawn more as accessories to the needs and perturbations of Nijinsky, and so we don’t get to see them stand on their own in the way we do when we see them represented in other works, for example, Bronislava’s choreography, or through descriptions we’ve read elsewhere of Karsavina’s onstage feats.
That said, the choreography does give Azzoni a chance to show what she can do with the repertoire her character dances, especially as the Chosen Virgin in Le Sacre de Printemps. She is part of a threesome that plays with the tension between naturalism and contrivance, as she oscillates between one and the other, and comes into her own, harp notes pointing up the wonderment of her movement.
The second half of the piece is devoted to World War I’s impact on the now deteriorating dancer and choreographer. It’s as if all of the war’s men and materiel were trained on him in order to carry out an onslaught of unimaginable brutality, a barbaric grab for what should belong to everyone and no one—the land and riches that science and art were extruding from the disputed, yet disinterested real estate, that portion underlying Nijinsky’s redoubtable home. He is caught in the crossfire, defenseless, armed only with the delicate sensibilities elaborated by his madness. All that is left is a vacuum when reason deserts him, and his lover Diaghilew turns away, because in the rare instance when Nijinsky follows convention, he marries Romula. For the dancers and audience alike, this turns into a pounding, deafening, visually overwhelming trampling of all that has gone before it. The length of the war sequence leaves us with two minds. Why bury all the delicate sense-memory of what went before it with an endless and heavily messaged barrage? The quick answer to that is, “So that you’ll get the message.” The second mind asks “Do you have to punish both your dancers and audience with such a fusillade to vent your anger, or have you misjudged our capacity to absorb this in pithier terms?” Either way, what stands out is Riabko’s astounding stamina, as well as his dispatch and spirited commitment to the work. My guess is that Neumeier has a touch of what the late Dom DeLuise brought to a TV commercial about a decade ago: He points to an antipasto platter spilling over with every kind of Italian delicacy, and then turns to the camera and says, “Do you think this will be enough?”
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.