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At the National Ballet: the tale of Vaslav Nijinsky, ‘god of the dance’

American-born choreographer John Neumeier, who has headed the Hamburg Ballet for four decades, employs circles real and metaphorical to explore the world of Vaslav Nijinsky.

Philipp Guelland/dapd

When the curtain rises tonight on the National Ballet of Canada's highly anticipated Canadian premiere of choreographer John Neumeier's Nijinsky, several large, orb-like circles will hang suspended above the stage. As the evening unfolds, the circles will rise, descend, and sometimes overlap – in the process providing a series of symbolic lenses through which the audience will watch unfurl the artistic achievements and turbulent life story of legendary Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, an artistic genius locked in a pas de deux with lunacy.

Born in Kiev in 1889 or 1890 (the date isn't certain) to Polish parents, dancers both, Nijinsky was a prodigious talent celebrated for his virtuosity and his ability to appear during jumps as if suspended in mid-air. Trained at the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg under the patronage of the czar, he would later decamp to Paris to become a prominent member of the legendary Ballet Russes, home to ornate and scandalous productions created by such names as Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel and Claude Debussy. He danced only a decade before succumbing to mental illness, spending the last 30 years of his life in and out of asylums. But his legend as "god of the dance" was established.

"We know him first as the greatest superstar of the beginning of the 20th century," said Neumeier, the 71-year-old, American-born artistic director of Germany's Hamburg Ballet, in a recent Toronto interview. "He was spectacular technically. But it was his presence on the stage more than anything else, his ability to transform himself for the various roles which he danced, that makes him fascinating as a dancer."

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A dancer, it turns out, who was obsessed with circles. Besides writing about Nijinsky and creating a ballet in his name (as well as an earlier, 1979 piece called Vaslav) Neumeier is an avid collector of Nijinsky images, letters, books, scores, statues and other memorabilia. Among the artifacts, housed since 2006 at the John Neumeier Foundation in Hamburg, are Nijinsky's own obsessive drawings of circles that appeared in the diaries he kept in 1919, the year he began losing his mind.

Nijinsky drew those circles with obsessive consistency, endowing some with eyes at their bulging centres. As a dancer of rock-star status, he had long had the eyes of the world upon him. But when his mind began to fail him, with increasing paranoia the dancer felt that he was being regarded – rightly, it turned out – not as a demigod but as a man who would need to be locked away.

Over the years, Neumeier – who has headed the Hamburg Ballet for four decades – has lent his private collection to major museums, among them the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, which in 2000 hosted an all-Nijinsky exhibition; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where Nijinsky's art works form part of the current blockbuster show, Inventing Abstraction.

In his diaries, Nijinsky suggests that the circle is perfection: what all dancers aspire to. Had he been able to work again, he envisioned a circular stage for the creation and performance of dance in the round. By filling his own tribute ballet with circles, Neumeier is thus helping to make Nijinsky's dream a reality.

The circles in Nijinsky – which is set to a swirling mix of music by Chopin, Schumann and Shostakovitch – help to frame some of Nijinsky's iconic roles. Among them: the sexualized Golden Slave in the 1910 ballet Scheherazade; the ethereal spirit of the Rose in 1911's Le Spectre de la rose; the avenging puppet Petrushka in the 1911 ballet of the same name, all by Mikhail Fokine and created for Les Ballets Russes. Neumeier presents them as fragments of memory stemming from Nijinsky's own splintering mind.

Neumeier's miasma of recollected emotions and sensations also includes scenes from Nijinsky's own revolutionary choreography, in particular the 1912 ballet L'Après-midi d'un faune, set to Debussy; and the 1913 ballet, Le Sacre du printemps, created to an original score by Stravinsky. Both works created riots in Paris theatres when they debuted: Faune for its scene of simulated masturbation; Sacre for its defiantly flat-footed and convulsive movements. The audience was so loud and boisterous at the first Sacre performance, the orchestra couldn't be heard over the din; Nijinsky had to shout out Stravinsky's counts to the dancers, from the wings.

Finally, the circles serve to spotlight biographical details lurking behind the ballets: the maverick Nijinsky's love affair with Sergei Diaghilev, for instance, the Russian-born impresario who put the pantherine dancer at the erotic centre of his Ballets Russes enterprise, rocketing him to fame. Diaghilev abandoned Nijinsky as an artist following the dancer's impromptu 1913 marriage to Hungarian aristocrat and one-time dancer Romola de Pulszky, with whom Nijinsky later had two children. In the ballet, Nijinsky appears pulled between them.

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But Neumeier isn't blaming either for Nijinsky's downfall. Mental disorders ran in the dancer's family. His mother, Eleanora, suffered from depression, and starved herself to death when she became a widow. Nijinsky's brother, Stanislav (Stassik), died in an insane asylum when Nijinsky was living in St. Moritz, where Neumeier bases his ballet. The circle of tragedy continued: His daughter Kyra also had a psychiatric disorder, although she would live to 1998.

Nijinsky's relationships were complicated, to be sure. But by using the circles as a structural device, Neumeier cleverly manages his own schizophrenic material in advancing the psychosis-driven plot. Or, rather, plots. There are several at play, making his ballet appear, at times, like a multiringed circus with Nijinsky, who died in 1950, always at its centre.

"I think I'm fascinated with Nijinsky because I discovered him when I was very young," says Neumeier. "And very often, the heroes we discover when we're young … when we're older, we discover flaws and we discover cracks and we discover things that were maybe not as we imagined." But worth reimagining nonetheless.

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