by Hedy Weiss
Long before the advent of Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, a Russian prodigy by the name Vaslav Nijinsky was hailed as the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. He also was a choreographer of genius (think of him as the Picasso of dance) whose work combined ballet with his own unique form of modern movement in such groundbreaking, sexually-charged, often scandal-generating masterworks as "The Afternoon of a Faun," (1912), "Jeux" (1913), "Till Eulenspiegel" and "The Rite of Spring" (1913) -- all created for impresario Sergei Diaghilev's Paris-based company, the Ballets Russes.
In his remarkable, grand-scale fantasia of a ballet, "Nijinsky," -- which played to packed houses this weekend at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance -- John Neumeier, the Milwaukee-born choreographer and designer who has spent the past 40 years as artistic director of Germany's Hamburg Ballet, captures the tormented psyche, as well as the artistic brilliance of this man whose explosive talent and inevitable implosion were inextricably connected.
But beyond capturing Nijinsky's innovative brilliance, this work, created in 2000, powerfully reveals Neumeier's own immense creativity -- his choreographic audacity, his ability to infuse layer upon layer of psychological and historical insight into movement, his grand theatricality and his bold, supremely elegant sense of design. Fittingly, he has a large, virtuosic company of dancers to interpret his work, as well as the largesse of state support.
The opening scene of "Nijinsky" (set variously to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich and others) immediately sparks the connection between the world of the stage and the actual audience. With the house lights still blazing, the guests at a posh hotel salon in Switzerland file into view, chattering audibly before Nijinsky arrives to give his final public performance.
It is 1919. The dancer's long and torturous relationship with Diaghilev -- his ever-manipulative lover, mentor, promoter and more -- is in shambles, in large part because he has married Romola de Pulszky. Caught up in what was surely the marriage from hell, Romola was unfaithful, yet returned time and again to try to rescue her husband. Meanwhile, in the world outside there was more chaos -- World War I -- which left Europe and Nijinsky (who was interned in Hungary until 1916) forever altered. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that Nikinsky was about to sink into ever more severe mental illness.
And it is that mental breakdown -- complete with flashbacks to the career-making roles he danced (as the Golden Slave in "Scheherazade," as the Faun, as the broken-hearted puppet Petruschka, as the Spirit of the Rose, as Harlequin and more) -- that drives the ballet.
Among Neumeier's most remarkable achievements here is the way he has been able to echo Nijinsky's now iconic choreography while also developing a distinctive and complementary vocabulary of his own to chart the anatomy of a fractured genius. Steeped in Nijinsky's world since his youth, Neumeier's choreography and design coalesce into an extraordinary hybrid vision. (As just one example: The giant neon rings that capture the more abstract aspects of Nijinsky's mind in this ballet just happen to be contemporary versions of Nijinsky's circular-patterned drawings.)
The more you know about Nijinsky (a marathon performance by the mesmerizing Alexandre Riabko, full of heat, beauty, anguish and dazzling technique), the more you can appreciate this ballet. But the sheer scale and complexity of the work is enough to enthrall, as multiple incarnations of Nijinsky inhabit the stage, as his whole world spins around him, and as he is relentlessly torn by his feverish, devouring relationship with Diaghilev (an ideally chilly Carsten Jung), and his taut yet volatile wife, Romola (Helene Bouchet, the powerhouse wraith in a crimson gown), who, in a particularly stunning series of images, pulls him across the stage on a child's black sled.
The fleet and wildly expressive Aleix Martinez danced the role of Nijinsky's (also mad) brother with gorgeous ferocity. Thiago Bordin's Golden Slave and Faun were both richly sensual in very different ways. Lloyd Riggins was an aptly tormented Petruschka, and Silvia Azzoni was a delicate winged sylph. Dozens of other notable dancers contributed in countless ways, many gathering in a slow, persistent march of soldiers along the back wall of the stage in an obligato of terror.
Neumeier may have given his ballet a few too many endings. Yet that is a small flaw, indeed, in a work that leaves Nijinsky dancing in your head long after he and his demons are out of the spotlight.
[One final note: John Neumeier is in discussions with Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey Ballet's artistic director, about possibly having one of his existing works set on the Joffrey. This would be a fine challenge.]