April 2013

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

Renate Stendhal

If you are looking for a choreographic challenge, try taking on the story of the "god of dance." Not a Shiva or some other mythological creature. Not a fantasy portrait of some hero or heroine of mythology or literature like Apollo or Carmen or La Dame aux CamĂ©lias. The story of the real blood-and-flesh "god of dance," Nijinsky, who illuminated ballet a hundred years ago with apparently otherworldly leaps and a sensuous, animal kind of beauty that drove both women and men crazy. "Eros," as Robert Graves reminds us, "was double-sexed and golden-winged." What remains of him are photographs of a small-bodied man with muscular legs, a most pliable upper body, a gorgeously sturdy neck and radiant face with slanted eyes. The photographs puzzle and fascinate. They show a chameleon who one moment appears as the archetype of the romantic prince, the next as a cool tennis player, a brutally athletic slave, the graceful half-human creature of a faun, or the ultra-feminine spirit of a rose. Apart from a few seconds of tantalizingly vague, dazzling film images (on YouTube), we have millions of stories about the "double-sexed and golden-winged" dancer: his quasi-mythical triumphs in Europe with the Ballets Russes; the scandals of his erotic ways of dancing and his own shocking choreographies that changed dance history; his gay relation to his mentor, impresario Diaghilev, their fall-out over Nijinsky's sudden wedding, and the soon-to-follow descent of the genius into madness.

Scene4 Magazine - Nijinsky | April 2013 |

To tell this story in dance could amount to some "biopic" that blows up a big balloon of pretensions and anecdotal kitsch. Even a serious attempt at portraying this dancer could easily be hubris because, let's face it, the world hasn't had another Nijinsky. All the attempts I've seen, even by the great Nureyev in his prime, were crushed by the burden of striving to embody a myth.

A Childhood Obsession

John Neumeier has been the director of the Hamburg Ballet for exactly forty years, creating a type of ballet that is rare in America: long, evening-filling, theme-driven or story-telling ballets. When he took up the challenge of Nijinsky I felt there was a lot to be nervous about. Neumeier had impressed me with a daring version of Swan Lake, Illusionen von Schwanensee, but dismayed me with the gay Schmaltz of his maudlin Death in Venice, his empty, conventional Dame aux Camélias, and most recently his over-the-top torturous Little Mermaid (reviewed here in April 2010). Nijinsky has been an obsession of his since childhood, and you can tell that Neumeier's approach has had decades to mature.


Neumeier's Nijinsky (premiered in 2000) is a thinking man's work, demanding a lot from the audience: to transcend a myth, recognize multiple fragmented and subtle allusions to Nijinsky's roles, his own choreographic works and his private life – not to mention his inner battles with God and demons — a legacy captured in Nijinsky's diaries from his many years of forced confinement as a paranoid schizophrenic. I had to see the piece twice to fully take in and begin decoding the scenes and images onstage.

Neumeier's first intelligent decision was to not even try to find a match, a body-double for the title role. He picked one of his many excellent dancers, Alexandre Riabko (alternating with Guillaume Coté from the National Ballet of Canada), who doesn't bear the least resemblance but translates the psychology of the character into perfectly evocative and convincing movements that bring Nijinsky's inner story to light.

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

Remembrance of Things Past

The stage is open to the glitzy setting of Nijinsky's last public performance, on January 19, 1919: a ballroom of a San Moritz hotel. (Sets and costumes designed by Neumeier.) A pianist intones bits of Schumann and Chopin while the society guests arrive in elegant 1920's attire, talking and gossiping loudly. Nijinsky arrives late, wrapped in tunics like some tragic emperor who is already embalmed and paralyzed in his past fame. Urged along by his nervous wife Romola, dressed in brilliant red, he unwraps to simple training pants and sits down in a chair, staring at his audience, unmoved. Urged again, he finally launches into the style of his own futurist choreographies: brutal, edgy, twisted, desperate, mad. The historical account of the St. Moritz event reports that Nijinsky declared he would be "dancing the war," and what we see looks like a war against himself, against losing his mind, throwing himself against invisible walls. His audience twitters and gets ready to leave, but suddenly Nijinsky switches it on: he dances what they want to see and applaud: the classical leaps and pirouettes of his days of glory. The choreography of this dance again follows the historical record -- a mixture of bravura show-off, nostalgia and mocking despair; it is both thrilling and sad, setting the tone for a portrait of Nijinsky as a man who is vulnerable in spite of his prowess, and who is on a path to his destruction.

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

Diaghilev (with the inevitable top hat, but without the girth or any other resemblance) appears on the balcony above, and the stage fills with the ghosts of the Ballets Russes, set to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade. "As everything is told as memory, Neumeier avoids all temptation for competing with "reality" – a reality nobody has seen. In fragments and disjointed dreams other dancers become fleeting apparitions of Nijinsky's famous roles while he remains onstage in training clothes:  Harlequin from Carnaval, the Poet from Les Sylphides , the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, and the title character of Spectre de la Rose. His family appears – his dancer parents, his younger sister Bronislava ("Bronia") Nijinska (also a dancer and the choreographer who continued Nijinsky's revolution), and, in a larger role, his dancer brother (the excellent, charismatic Aleix Marinez) who went mad earlier than Nijinsky and seems to be an adolescent mirror-image, an innocent premonition of Nijinsky's own breakdown. All these characters are woven into glimpses of ballet stories with sylphes and (too many) odalisques, mixing life and stage into a Proustian tale of remembrances -- as much ballet circus and glitter as sweat and tears.

Even if you are not a Nijinsky connoisseur, don't catch all the allusions or can't figure out who is who and which ballet or event is being cited, this carnival of a distant past is wonderful to watch because Neumeier has found a choreographic language that melts classical dance, modern dance movements and the modernism of the Ballets Russes (1909 to 1913) into a seamless style that remains faithful to the past and full of surprises. A particular surprise are the Nijinsky "doubles" who stand in for him. They charm with their beauty (in original costumes and makeup) and the brevity of their appearances. The fact that they are only make-believe (devoid of their original music) with no claim to perfection accords the dancers just that: the ease of fleeting perfection.

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

Nijinsky and Diaghilev

Another surprise is the intensity of the second scene in Act I, set to music by Shostakovich, in the ballet studio where young Nijinsky tries out and rehearses the odd new movements he has in his head– the opposite of classical ballet: "Turned-in feet, tense body, broken lines, stylized hands, and a skin-tight costume were only the beginning of Nijinsky's modernist remaking of dance," as Jennifer Homans describes Nijinsky's l'Après-midi d'un faune in her study Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. But here in the ballet studio of his beginnings, he is also just the beautiful boy who is taken home by rich aristocratic patrons. According to history, Nijinsky was encouraged into this kind of sexual mentorship by his mother who appreciated the financial benefits, and when his lordly patrons got bored (in private, Nijinsky seems to have been extremely shy and mute), he was passed on to impresario Diaghilev.

Neumeier chose a superb, charismatic dancer, Carsten Jung, for that role – taller than the lead dancer, lythe and powerful. With an honesty that even today strikes me as daring, the seduction and instant artistic collaboration between the two men is translated into thrilling moves of a pas de deux. There is nothing copied from the conventional, embarrassing ways heterosexual "sextasies" are usually depicted in ballet. There also is none of the besotted homo-kitsch Neumeier used in his miscalculated version of Death in Venice. Here he has designed an emotionally restrained, fleeting flow between two equally athletic bodies, with cantilevered legato moves shifting one body over or under the other like waves that carry erotic tension and release and sufficiently allude to both men being carried away. Neumeier concentrates on the collaborative themes in the love duets. His interweaving of two strong personalities  is filled with suspense as the balance of power constantly shifts – but always ends up or returns to Diaghilev. The older man's calmly outstretched arm becomes the symbolic gesture that seems to show Nijinsky the artistic direction -- the fact Diaghilev gave Nijinsky an education and opened his cultural horizon in major ways, building the foundation from which the young dancer was able, like a comet, to revolutionize ballet within only a few years with this mentor.  At the same time the outstretched arm seems to limit Nijinsky, hold him back and hold him off. (A recurring scene seems to refer to Nijinsky's first creation, Jeux, the outlandish idea of translating a tennis match into a flirtation game… between men. But Diaghilev, ever the practical patron, made him conventionalize this avant-garde idea into a game between one man and two women.) Elements of ambivalence come up throughout the story, with Nijinsky running up against this arm and then clinging to it. Sometimes Diaghilev simply picks him up and carries him out like a child.

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

The Marriage

With similar psychological nuance, Neumeier tells the story of Nijinsky and his unlikely marriage to a woman who was one of his innumerable fans, Romola de Pulszky, who had not much more going for her than being the pretty daughter of a famous Hungarian actress. Romola  followed the Ballets Russes around like a manic groupie, managing to get past Nijinsky's guardians and push near him, pretending to be a dancer. She caught him in a moment of vulnerability, on a tour to a South America in 1913, in the absence of his usual protectors, Diaghilev and loyal sister Bronia.

The scene is the ship; Romola on a beach chair swoons over the latest ballet choreographed and danced by Nijinsky that she has just seen – L'Après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) from 1912. She tries out the gestures of the nymph – the nymph whose shawl ends up with the faun in the scandalous ending when Nijinsky thrust his hips onto the shawl and arched his back in ecstasy – a move that sent moral shockwaves through the Paris audience and the world. Alone on deck, Nijinsky pays Romola no heed, fanning himself with a fan (another prop from his ballet). But the specter of the Faun appears – a creation of Romola's fantasy, and as if conjured by the same fantasy, Nijinsky turns to her. They dance a pas de deux that is in fact a pas de trois. The Faun is and isn't part of it -- recalling the famous French version of La Sylphide that has a similarly erotic pas de trois made up of pure illusion. It is subtly clear in Neumeier's dramaturgy of movement that without the Faun's sexual, animal presence there would be no sustainable attraction. In reality, there was not much of a rapport between Nijinsky and Romola -- not even a shared language (not to speak of the language of dance). The one thing they shared, it turned out, was their bisexuality, but this little fait divers doesn't appear in Neumeier's portrait. He shows the couple's interest already waning when the Faun has made a shadowy allusion to making love to Romola's shawl and she has turned back to her deck chair, fondling that shawl.


Apparently Nijinsky was clueless that his spur of the moment marriage would mark the end for him. That Diaghilev, deeply wounded, would pull the rug out from under his feet by shutting him out of the Ballets Russes. Nijinsky's attempts to continue on his own miserably failed. With the chaos of war, his ensuing decline and insanity, Romola became both his protector and jailer. Joan Acocella's essay on Nijinsky in her book Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints provides well researched, disturbing information about Nijinsky's medical and psychiatric care under Romola's inept guidance, the treatments that made him worse and condemned him to spend his remaining thirty years in the agony of asylums.

Interestingly, Neumeier carries little judgment against Romola. He always casts one of his most beautiful dancers for the part (this time Hélène Bouchet, doubling with a guest star from the National Ballet of Canada, Heather Ogden). He shows the impossibility of this mystifying relationship with compassion, perhaps indicating that the schizophrenia that ran in the family and the break with Diaghilev were inevitable even without Romola's intervention.


Circles of Hell

Act 2 simply focuses on the outcome, Nijinsky's descent. The empty stage is dominated by neon-lit huge circles hanging over the black space and sometimes descending, steadily changing their position, size and meaning. Sometimes they seem to symbolize Da Vinci's ideal of the body's geometric harmonies that govern classical ballet. Sometimes they seem to descend like a vice around Nijinksky's brain, reminding of his obsessive drawings and paintings of circles in his confinement, his paranoia of eyes watching him – the eye of God, the eyes of Diaghilev, the audience, Romola, and his doctors. Sometimes a circle of light stands upright like the elusive gate between sanity and insanity, Nijinsky on the one side, his younger self, the brother -- and sometimes the rest of the world -- on the other.

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

When the scene shifts back to the hotel room of his final public appearance it is now a place of dissolution and madness. The brother reappears in a straight-jacket, brutalized, dying, joined by the specter of Petrouchka, one of Nijinsky's most heart-breaking roles – the lonely puppet destroyed by unrequited love. At the same time, a group of men, weirdly costumed in soldier-like jackets, but in ballet underwear, seems to announce the approach of war as much as the violence of Nijinsky's 1913 choreography Le Sacre du Printemps, the culmination of his radical leap into modernism.

Perhaps this mix-up of war with Sacre du Printemps was a clever idea but it turns out to be one of the weakest moments of the ballet. Again, Neumeier avoids the original Stravinsky music and opts for Shostakovich, and he doesn't even try to evoke the brutal, archaic body language we know from the descriptions of Sacre and from the painstaking (but inconclusive) reconstructions of the lost work by the Joffrey Ballet (1987). We get a generic modern stomping dance, with the sacrificial virgin in a nondescript frenzy in front of the men. At least this ends mercifully soon with a historical detail: the riot this ballet created in Paris (police had to intervene), has Nijinsky standing on a chair in the wings, desperately shouting the counts for the dancers who were unable to hear Stravinsky's full-throttle blasts through the roar of the audience.

Scene4 Magazine - "Nijinsky" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | April 2013 |

One of the mysteries remaining is the tender ending when Romola brings in a child's sled, heaps the dissolute Nijinsky on it and slowly drags him across the stage. She now wears a simple girl's summer dress and I suppose the image is meant to speak to the lost innocence of childhood and the confusion in Nijinsky's head between sister Bronia's tenderness rather than Romola's. It's a poignant image that could come right out of Pina Bausch, and it works for Neumeier. Another fantasy ends the piece: the soldier-men are all killed; Diaghilev — now nonchalantly retreating on the sled -- blows a last kiss to Nijinsky. Historically correct, Nijinsky wraps himself in large swaths of red and black cloth and gives up, his arms spread like a figure of Christ – once the God of Dance, a sacrificial lamb in the end.

All photos from the San Francisco Ballet performance by Erik Tomasson

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©2013 Renate Stendhal
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


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