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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,"
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
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
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
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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