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Flash Review 1, 7-2: Tracking the Faun
Neumeier Traces Nijinsky

By Stephan Laurent
Copyright 2004 Stephan Laurent

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(To celebrate the 30th anniversary of John Neumeier's tenure as director, Hamburg Ballet is presenting 16 Neumeier creations for this year's Hamburg Ballet Days. Seventh review.)

HAMBURG -- Since its premiere in July 2000, John Neumeier's "Nijinsky" has sometimes been called the Hamburg Ballet's signature piece. Indeed, this was the evening-length work chosen for the company's tour to the U.S. this past February, after also appearing in Paris last year. (Click here for Paul Ben-Itzak's DI review of the French premiere.) "Nijinsky" is certainly one of the most significant works of this emerging century. Neumeier continues to astound with the breadth of his vocabulary, which ranges from fluid ballet sequences to angst-filled contorted shapes. In addition, the haunting psychological themes, the beautiful music, the alternately elaborate and stark sets and costumes and the intense physicality with which all of the Hamburg dancers throw themselves into the work all make for a gripping experience. The June 10 Hamburg Ballet Days performance at the Staatsoper of this impressive depiction of the short career and long journey into madness of one of history's greatest male dancers was the 73rd altogether.

The ballet opens and closes on a reconstruction of the salon of an opulent house in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where Nijinsky gave his last public recital on a cold February evening in 1919. Written contemporary testimonies of this poignant ultimate performance indicate the turmoil already possessing the troubled virtuoso artist's mind as he improvised one dance after the other for the astounded guests, to piano music by Chopin and Schumann played off-stage. During Neumeier's recreation of this solo concert we see, one after the other, the significant characters in Nijinsky's life emerge from the onstage audience: his wife Romola (danced June 10 with believable poignancy by Heather Jurgensen) is the first to be seen. She is followed later by his sister Bronislava (a supple Niurka Moredo), his brother Stanislav (Yukichi Hattori), his parents, and of course the all-imposing figure of Serge Diaghilev (the dominating Lloyd Riggins). Meanwhile the scenery has receded into the background and the remainder of the first act unfurls as a retrospective of the great dancer's career with Diaghilev's fabled company, accompanied by the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, whose 1910 "Scheherazade" was one of the greatest successes of the Ballets Russes and featured Nijinsky in one of his most memorable roles.

Neumeier utilizes several dancers to portray the legendary virtuoso. As Nijinsky the man, Alexander Riabko, fluid and sinuous yet vulnerable-looking, opens the ballet. Each successive stage persona is represented by another dancer, clad in re-constructions of the original beautiful costumes by Benois and Bakst. We see Nijinsky as "Le Spectre de la Rose" (Arsen Megrabian), as the Golden Slave in "Scheherazade" (Jiri Bubenicek), as the Young Man in Nijinsky's own ballet "Jeux" (Thiego Bordin), and many other incarnations. While on occasion one can recognize in the choreography quotations of some of the original poses of these legendary works, this is not the real focus. What is portrayed here is Nijinsky's passion for his art as his mentor Diaghilev leads him from one role to the other, and later pushes him to create his own daring works. The interplay between Nijinsky and his entourage is "sotto voce," as we see the dancer throwing himself into his work with an ardor that few artists must have ever approached. In this way Neumeier suggests that Nijinsky's descent into insanity, the subject matter of the second act, had its origin in the man's intensity in everything he undertook.

The second act is much more somber than the first and is dominated by the haunting tunes of Shostakovich's eleventh symphony, itself composed with war in mind. Dark hues and stark shapes dominate the setting and costumes, only occasionally broken by the appearance of past shadows from the dancer's prior roles. We see him as Petrouchka (Ivan Urban, pathetically pounding invisible walls that seem to close in on him), or as the Faun (Otto Bubenicek) from his own "Afternoon of a Faun." But now the focus is on the man (Riabko), who gradually loses his grip on reality in the midst of the raging conflicts that both surround him and consume him. The second world war, which Nijinsky saw coming as a great malediction unto the world, is represented by strong formations of ensemble movements in the background sometimes taking over the stage with crisp and rhythmic precision. Through it all, we see Nijinsky meandering dejectedly, sometimes as a slumped figure being dragged about in a sleigh by the faithful Romola, or we recognize him in the frantic rantings of his brother Stanislav (who preceded Vaslav in being institutionalized), as the athletic and fearless Hattori hurls himself into rolling convulsions on the floor. At the end of the ballet, the scenery of the St. Moritz salon reappears and we find ourselves almost right where we began. Riabko convincingly performs a rendering of Nijinsky's last improvisation in his 1919 recital, a poignant, modernistic dance about war and destruction involving a huge cross made of cloth in which he engulfs himself and on which he finishes, lying prone, exhausted.

Neumeier's fascination with Nijinsky dates back from his own childhood, and he has by now amassed one of the world's most exhaustive collection of books, sketches, artifacts, and memorabilia on the great dancer. He has obviously researched his subject thoroughly and thoughtfully. His depiction of Nijinsky not simply as a fabulous performer, but mainly as a most human, at times pathetic creature struggling to cope with his environment is very touching. Being mostly non-linear, this very personal and humane approach conjures a kaleidoscope of sometimes conflicting, sometimes convergent images that makes "Nijinsky" not so much a spectacle but a biography of a troubled soul to which we are invited as privileged guests.


(Also available on the Dance Insider are Stephan Laurent's Flash Reviews of John Neumeier's "Bernstein Dances," "Peer Gynt," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Seagull," "Preludes CV" and "Jubilee Gala," featured earlier in the Hamburg Ballet Days.)

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