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Flash Review, 1-16: Hooked on a Feeling
Springtime for "Nijinsky" & "Sylvia," with Neumeier

"C'etait la danse, pour la vie, contre la morte."

--Romola Nijinsky on the last dance of Vaslav Nijinsky, in "Nijinsky," Paris, Denoel and Steele, 1934

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Growing up in Milwaukee in the 1940s and '50s, John Neumeier had little exposure to dance. There was no professional ballet company and no school. But there was a library, and at the library there were four or five dance books. Among these was Anatole Bourman's "The Tragedy of Nijinsky." Neumeier discovered this biography when he was ten or 11 years old and, notwithstanding the dire warnings of his teachers that he shouldn't be reading such things, the seeds were planted for a life in ballet in which Neumeier would make his own singular contribution. In the year 2000, some 50 years after he first opened Bourman's biography, Neumeier, now in his 30th year as director of the Hamburg Ballet and one of he world's leading Nijinsky collectors, wrote his own dance biography of the legendary dancer, which had its Paris premiere last week at the Garnier on the Hamburg Ballet.

Neumeier, whose collection supplied many of the artifacts in the generous Nijinsky exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay two years ago, does not collect the memorabilia for the light it might shine on him as its owner but for the light it shines on Vaslav Nijinsky as a man. 50 years after first reading about the dancer, Neumeier is still trying to figure out who he was.

For "Nijinsky," an evening-length expansion of his 1979 "Vaslav" created for Patrick Dupond, Neumeier doesn't try to replicate Nijinsky the dancer, but to explore the source -- Nijinsky the man --and those closest to him: His wife Romola; the impresario Serge Diaghilev, on whose Ballets Russes Nijinsky created his choreographies and his own legend as a dancer; his sister, the talented choreographer Bronislava; Stanislav, a brother institutionalized before Vaslav was; his parents; and his longtime partner, Tamara Karsavina. His most famous roles, portrayed by other dancers besides the one playing Nijinsky, also check in for cameos: the Faun in his 'L'Apres-midi d'un faune," the Harlequin in "Carnaval," th Young Man in "Jeux," and, from the ballets of Michel Fokine, the Spectre de la Rose, the Golden Slave from "Scheherazade," and Petrouchka.

Framing all this is Nijinsky's last recital, a benefit for the Red Cross held in 1919. The dancer began the real recital by sitting in a chair and watching the audience for half an hour, Romola later wrote, before rising and announcing, "Now, I will dance for you the war: the suffering, the destruction, the deaths."

For his ballet, Neumeier dances Nijinsky's biography in the first act and his war dance and dance of mental deterioration, as it were, in the second. The dancer portraying Nijinsky, Alexandre Riabko in the performance I caught Saturday afternoon, dances, but more in the dramatic mode of Neumeier than the at the virtuosic level of Nijinsky. There's lots of contracting and acting only saved from becoming emoting by the underplayed, almost humble delivery of Riabko. Removed, he is never remote, but seems to be grappling with the demons as much as those around him are grappling with what is happening to him. The visions perplex him as much as he perplexes his loved ones -- such as that of soldiers who, present throughout the ballet, contort into death late in the second act, back at the recital.

I don't know whether this was a conscious choice, but none of the dancers portraying the roles Nijinsky made famous astound, except for Lloyd Riggins as Petrouchka. Romola likens Nijinsky's war dance at the recital to Petrouchka's silent scream against the cell imprisoning him, and Riggins/Petrouchka surfaces in the second act to make the famous circle around his cell, pounding helplessly against the invisible walls until he is exhausted -- and then pounding some more. It might sound a little hokey -- there's meant to be a parallel to the walls closing in on Nijinsky -- but Neumeier has used such comparisons so sparingly that instead it hits home.

Dancing-wise, the show is stolen by Ivan Urban's Diaghilev, chiefly in several romantic duets with his star. Neumeier is great with hands, and several times Diaghilev juts an arm out to Nijinsky, who comes running to it until his head touches Diaghilev's hand; the arm then curls around the head until Diaghilev is as much imprisoning as protecting Nijinsky. The faun imprisoned motif is reinforced when Diaghilev carries a stiffened Nijinsky off and his feet jerk spasmodically, independent of the rest of his body. There's also a scene in which an errant tennis ball retrieved by Diaghilev turns out to be from a very young Leonide Massine, who is then seduced by the impresario to the consternation of Nijinsky, who tries to insinuate himself between them. There are many rivalries enacted in this story: the requisite trio in which Diaghilev takes Nijinsky from Romola and yet another in which, after they've married, the Faun pops up to insinuate himself between Vaslav and Romola.

The first act left me dangling -- not quite captured by what seemed a rote recitation of the facts as we already knew them, in a vocabulary that, while compelling in its intricacy, didn't add to the story. Curiously enough, the less linear second act was the more dramatically intriguing and engaging, with Neumeier taking greater imagistic and biographic license, trying to recreate the world as Nijinsky might have increasingly seen it.

Our link to that world continues to be Romola, in which role Anna Polikarpova steals the show dramatically. Her dancing, particularly perfect arabesques with her long limbs only extended by a cumbersome red gown, is flawless and free. But it's Polikarpova's understated acting which humanizes Nijinsky's story. Her response to his descent is not shrewish or alarmist but attentive; she is his helpmate. For much of the second act, with telling endurance, she carts him around on a red wagon, and the weight she expresses is not just that of the physical weight of her charge but the emotional burden she uncomplainingly has assumed.

His descent is physicalized not by Riabko as Vaslav, but by Yukichi Hattori as his brother, constantly breaking into wild spasms which Vaslav seems more attuned to than anybody else. The artistic heart of the actual ballets -- a welcome relief from the neurosis going on everywhere else -- is embodied by Heather Jurgensen, who brings a high level of regal bearing and pouty-lipped mystery to the role of Karsavina, whether in sylph's wings or popping up as Petrouchka's Ballerina late in the second act. The only real disappointment, besides the less than memorable interpreters of all the Nijinsky roles save Petrouchka, was Niurka Moredo's Bronislava. As created by Neumeier, the role seemed choreographically potentially the most interesting, an intellectual counter-weight to her brother's careening psyche, but Moredo didn't bring the star power necessary for such a big historical figure.

Neumeier makes smart music choices: Rather than offer snippets of every ballet made famous by Nijinsky, he sets the first act -- in which most of these ballets are evoked -- almost entirely to selections from Rimski-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," with additional music from Chopin, Shostakovich and Schuman. The second is set entirely to Shostakovich's "Symphonie no. 11, op. 103" -- like the dance in Nijinsky's last recital and this last act, a response to the horrors of war.

"Sylvia," also created by Neumeier, on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1997, and reprised Monday at the Bastille, might be said to be the antidote to "Nijinsky." Light where where "Nijinsky" is heavy, airy where "Nijinsky" feels suffocating, it takes the myth that was the source for the first "Sylvia" -- also the first ballet performed at the Garnier, in 1876 -- and evokes a romp in the Spring. I say 'Spring' because it wasn't long into the performance at the rather somber Bastille before I experienced a sensation I've never had at the ballet -- a sense memory of Spring, and of Spring love. It's not unusual for dance to make a visceral effect or, particularly from Neumeier, an intellectual argument. But for the alchemy of science (the choreography) and ideas (the story) to bypass the cerebrum and stir up a feeling from a Spring 20 years past -- how often has that happened to you?

The story of "Sylvia" helps. I won't bore this educated audience with the entire history, but, briefly, as Neumeier writes in the program: "Frist performed in 1876 at the Paris Opera in Louis Merante's choreography, 'Sylvia' broke with Romantic ballet and the ethereal image of the fairy or sylphide which gave way to the maiden warrior, a distant sister of Penthesilea." In one of those fortuitous accidents of history, the ballet's trajectory would also set in motion the chain of events that completely revolutionized ballet in the 20th century: "Invited in 1900 by the Maryinsky Theatre to supervise a revival of 'Sylvia,' which had first come to Russia in 1891, Diaghilev suggested entrusting the production to his 'dream team,' the painters Bakst and Benois. Tensions flared between Diaghilev and the management and he was dismissed." We know what happened next. "For this reason," postulates Neumeier, "'Sylvia' turned out, indirectly, to be the key which opened the door to modernity."

Like Roland Petit, Neumeier seems to count on invested interpreters for his quirky and sometimes melodramatic choreography to be believeable. In the cast I saw, he lucked out in his leads. Manuel Legris, as Aminta, the human who falls for Sylvia, nymph of the goddess Diana, evoked as always a savoring of joys he knows to be fleeting. Legris soaks in the air of Spring -- enhanced by Yannis Kokkos's light bright costumes and set -- and expresses it back at us. Here as in all his roles -- particularly when dancing the work of Jerome Robbins -- he always seems to have happened into an elygiac field and to be savoring it for as long as it can last, knowing it's ephemeral.

For his maiden warrior, Neumeier has found a gem in Eleonora Abbagnato, who continues to flower and expand her range. Her story -- and it's the central one Neumeier is trying to tell -- is of "an Amazon at that fragile moment between adolescence and womanhood," as Neumeier writes. Sure, there's a bit of Robbins's "The Cage" in how Abbagnato, surrendering to Aminta after a pas de deux mixing surrender and resistance, turns around and rebuffs him at the implied urging of a petulant Diana. But the push-pull tension is more nuanced here, as depicted by Neumeier and enacted by his principals. Here again Neumeier's attention to hands serves him well: Sylvia's slap in the face to rebuff Aminta is made all the more poignant by the memory that that same hand had cupped his chin just moments before at the end of their pas de deux.

Jose Martinez doesn't quite have the acting chops to transcend his atypical casting as an alternately goofy and suave Love/Orion. I just don't buy the dashing Martinez, in red overalls with one strap loose and a backwards baseball cap, doing a silly Cupid, and I don't buy that a nymph as wild as Abbagnato's Sylvia would respond to his beckoning finger and surrender her virginity, rather than aiming her quiver at him and firing.

I do know that American ballet companies would be well-advised to stop their "where are the new ballet choreographers" sobbing and use everything in their arsenals to capture this American choreographer, and mount his originally conceived story ballets on U.S. troupes.

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