Neumeier’s Nijinsky: a Classic of the Future


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Posted By On Dit Editors @ Saturday, 22 October 2016 06:32 PM

Words by Kyriaco Nikias

Just over one hundred years ago, a Parisian audience descended into a riot between cultural factions at the premiere of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Last Friday in Adelaide at the opening night of The Australian Ballet’s performance of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, the reaction could not have been more different.
Nijinsky’s prodigious career as a young dancer, and later choreographer, lasted but ten years before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919. He was never to dance again, sentenced to three decades of being shuttled by his wife Romola between asylums. The opening scene of Neumeier’s ballet recreates Vaslav’s final performance before his diagnosis. Reports of that performance, which took place in a Swiss hotel in 1919, described an anguished solo by Nijinsky, following thirty minutes of harrowingly staring into the audience motionlessly sitting in a chair on stage.
Principal artist Kevin Jackson, bears both a tremendous burden and honour in playing the role of Vaslav. From this first scene, Jackson disposes of both responsibilities astoundingly, overcoming the gargantuan task of portraying the twentieth century’s greatest male dancer.
Throughout, Neumeier champions the male dancer, a nod to Nijinsky’s own role in reviving appreciation for male dancers in the early 20th Century. Nijinsky as a dancer flipped the contemporary decline in taste for men in ballet, and his choreography broadened the spectrum of emotion in male performance. Nijinsky might have pushed the boundaries in 1914 with the The Rite of Spring, described by Le Figaro’s critic Henri Quittard as ‘barbari[c]’, but his legacy smoothed the path for such later greats as Rudolf Nureyev.
Nijinsky is less a biographic narrative than a free exploration of the themes of fascination and torment that characterised the life of this Russian-Polish ‘god of dance’. Two acts are fragmented into narratively disconnected snapshots of Nijinsky’s psychosis, repeatedly centring on his relationship with his mentor Serghei Diaghilev.
Diaghilev was then one of St Petersburg’s most influential patrons and critics of art, and founder of the famous Ballet Russes company, where Nijinsky danced. Through his choreography Neumeier’s ballet takes the thesis that Diaghilev was the dominant force in a relationship that was to decline. It is still debated whether Diaghilev pushed Nijinsky away in later years, or that the contemporary indecency of homosexuality pressured the dancer to marry his wife Romola.
Parallel to the decline of his relationship with Diaghilev was the development Nijinsky’s psychosis. But no serious reflection on his life has concluded that the two were distinguishable, and neither does Neumeier’s ballet. In his poem September 1, 1939, W H Auden wrote, responding to sour words written by Nijinsky about Diaghilev, whom he had grown to despise,
‘What mad Nijinsky wrote / About Diaghilev / Is true of the normal heart; / For the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man / Craves what it cannot have, / Not universal love / But to be loved alone.’ (emphasis added)
Neumeier’s ballet forces the audience to hold on to the motif of this pained romantic longing throughout. In the second act, Kevin Jackson performs the decline of Nijinsky’s psyche with anguished, jagged movement against the musical backdrop of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11, a work itself concerned with the horror of the Russian Revolution of 1905.
Both the disintegrated succession of scenes (especially in the first act), and Jackson’s distressed movements, frame the audience within the mind of the suffering Nijinsky. Neumeier’s choreography will not delight those who expect the pas de deux of Swan Lake, the elegant movements of classical ballet, or the romantic tales of princes and princesses. But the exploration of mental illness in this work is outstanding, precisely because it eschews the veil of unrealistic and inhuman fairytales—in Jackson’s words, ‘very human, very today’.
There is a cultural friction that affects arts companies like The Australian Ballet between the strong market for performing beloved works like Swan Lake, and the need to champion new works like Nijinsky. Artistic director David McAllister has rightly acknowledged that ‘[i]f we just continue to stage the classics of the 19th century then we are not doing our job of creating the classic works of the future.’ In awe at the performance on Friday, the audience gave a prolonged standing ovation after the curtain fell, showing Nijinsky will indeed be a classic of the future.
Nijinsky has completed its Melbourne and Adelaide seasons. It will be performed in Sydney on 11-28 November.