As legend goes, Vaslav Nijinsky caused such a stir when he performed The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 that the audience rioted in the theatre. There's little consensus on what this rioting consisted of – fist fights, arrests, objects hurled onstage – but I've often thought of this gem of ballet history with a vague feeling of envy. Imagine being in a crowd that felt so riled by the art onstage that they were moved to such extremes.
Riotous isn't quite the right way to describe how I felt after the National Ballet's production of John Neumeier's Nijinsky in 2014, but my reaction was no doubt extreme. I was so deeply moved by the production, so startled by its richness and complexity, that all I wanted to do was hit rewind and watch it again. I wasn't able to until Wednesday night, when the National Ballet reopened the performance in Toronto. (In October, the company fittingly took its production to Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where Nijinsky performed Rite in 1913).
It's always a little frightening to revisit art that you adore, for fear that the second trip might pale against the first one. But the ballet was as layered, intelligent and emotionally powerful as I remembered. If you're at all familiar with Nijinsky's diaries – a dizzying record of the artist's thoughts in the first stages of psychosis – you might feel as though its disturbing ruminations have been given theatrical form. Neumeier lets madness and memory occupy the same space.
Set in Switzerland in 1919, the ballet is framed as Nijinsky's last performance, at the twilight of his sanity. There is little division between the external and internal on stage: History moves at the same pace as Nijinsky's mind and we're airdropped into a liminal world of fact, memory and feeling.
Neumeier is able to pull this off because he's so good at ensemble work. As a choreographer, he's committed to the stage picture, taking meticulous responsibility for cumulative effect. At its most thrilling, this brings us panoplies of history such as the one near the end of Act 1. Early 20th-century dance sweeps by in colours and motion. We catch glimpses of characters from Nijinsky's key ballets (Jeux, L'Après-midi d'un faune and Le Spectre de la rose) juxtaposed with appearances by his wife, mother and sister. Ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theatre are layered over clusters of Scheherazade dancers whose pummelling arms seem to (literally) break through classical constraints. It's like being able to watch the manifestation of an abstract process – a "juncture in time" – in which the conventions of Belle-Epoque Europe were ripped apart by modernist ideas.
While these sequences are stunning in their complexity, it's the simplicity of Neumeier's choreography that struck me on second viewing. He's not a movement innovator, but the straightforwardness of his lexicon allows for the dancers to inhabit their roles with depth. He's especially skilled at the haunting power of unrequited – or terminated – love.
The weight he brings to Nijinsky's relationship with Ballet Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev (Evan McKie) reminded me of the power of Neumeier's gay love story in A Streetcar Named Desire. A lot is happening just beneath the surface of a pas de deux that alternates between manipulating/resting on each other's bodies and bursts of synchronized choreography. Neumeier's decision to have Diaghilev haunt the action of the entire ballet, appearing in corners (and sometimes dead-centre stage) is a powerful one. It's a beautiful metaphor for the way key figures in our lives are often distilled by our memories as a single mood. And the aloofness that McKie brings to this idea, as though he's only ever half real, is effective and terrifically sad.
Guillaume Côté is so grounded and vulnerable in the title role that he's able to access a whole canvas of feelings – skittish, desirous, furious and terrified. In Act 1, he unsettles his guests with an unhinged recital that has him lunging on the floor with a fist pressed against his mouth. Suddenly, he's resting his tortured stare on the audience, distraught by his own behaviour. When he meets his future wife Romola de Pulszky (Heather Ogden) on a ship in South America, the glibness of their courtship foreshadows the tragedy to come. Ogden's dancing is also full of tenderness and pathos when her marriage (and her husband's mind) falls apart later on.
Act 2 is a riveting world unto itself, in which Nijinsky's madness intensifies against the backdrop of the First World War. A jaw-dropping reimagination of The Rite of Spring is performed by dancers dressed as soldiers. Jenna Savella is formidably intense as the "chosen virgin" who stands at the helm of this army, knocking her head back and forth in rebellion. As the orchestra bursts into powerful Shostakovich (Neuemeier doesn't use the original Stravinsky score to Rite) and bodies drop to the ground, we're left to wonder whether the world has gone crazier than Nijinsky.
There's no shortage of remarkable performances in this production, but the real takeaway is the sophistication and intelligence of the whole enterprise. I've dedicated a lot of space in these pages to my frustration with story ballets that condescend to their audiences: perfunctory adaptations of plot and reliance on showy spectacle. Neumeier's Nijinsky has the essential power of a primary source; it feels like an invention rather than an interpretation.
Nijinsky continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Nov. 26 and will be presented at Ottawa's National Arts Centre from Jan. 25-27.