The National Ballet of Canada's production of John Neumeier's Nijinsky is a triumph on all fronts. The company first premiered the work in March of last year to great acclaim and its return is welcome indeed. In fact, the ballet is so complex that it will take many repeated performances to reveal its riches.
The American-born Neumeier is artistic director of Germany's Hamburg Ballet, which debuted Nijinsky in 2000. He is not a linear storyteller. Rather, the ballets he creates tend to be psychological studies where reality and fantasy merge together. In Nijinsky, we see both the inner and outer world of a fevered imagination.
Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) is considered among the greatest dancers who ever lived. He changed the way audiences look at male dancers. Before Nijinsky, men were mainly porters for the ballerina, who occasionally were given variations to show off their skills. The cult of the ballerina was the mainstay of ballet. As a choreographer, Nijinsky put the danseur noble on equal footing with the prima ballerina.
Neumeier's ballet is an interior journey, a descent into madness. It begins with Nijinsky's last public performance in 1919 in a ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. For the next 39 years, Nijinsky's schizophrenia would take him in and out of mental institutions. His career ended when he was just 29.
The ballet is seen through the eyes of Nijinsky as a confused whirlwind of memories. Guillaume Côté gives the performance of a lifetime as the tortured dancer. He throws his heart and soul into Nijinsky, portraying his fragile psyche with heart-breaking honesty.
Weaving throughout the ballet are snippets of Nijinsky's greatest roles and through them the National Ballet shows off the strength of the men in its company. Naoya Ebe was both Harlequin in Carnaval and the Spirit in Spectre de la Rose. Keiichi Hirano performed the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade and the Faun in L'Après-midi d'un faune. Francesco Gabriele Frola was the Young Man in Jeux while Jonathan Renna was Petruschka. All were superb.
Frola also performed Leonid Massine, the next great dancer after Nijinsky. He brought charisma and technique to his role as Nijinsky's rival.
Neumeier himself designed the sets, costumes and lighting. For Nijinsky the dancer, he garbs the men in the original costumes, so they become living, breathing images of the famous Nijinsky photographs. These characters also play important figures in the ballet. For example, the sad and forlorn Petruschka becomes one of the writhing soldiers depicting the carnage of World War 1.
Neumeier also includes the women in Nijinsky's life – his wife Romola (Xiao Nan Yu), his sister and fellow dancer, Bronislava Nijinska (Jenna Savella), his mother Eleonora Bereda (Svetlana Lunkina), and his favourite ballerina, Tamara Karsavina (Sonia Rodriguez). All give exquisite performances, denoting both happy and sad memories. Yu, in particular, gives a haunting portrait of heart-broken woman.
The throughline of the ballet is Nijinsky's affair with the impresario of the famous Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev (Evan McKie), the man who made Nijinsky's career. McKie is suitably imperial and imposing, and Neumeier has created several pas de deux for Nijinsky and Diaghilev that include incredibly dangerous lifts. Both men were flawless in their execution.
Also excellent was the corps de ballets who vary between guests at the performance, characters from Nijinsky's ballets, and terrifying figures from his confused and tortured mind. The male corps was particularly effective presenting the horrors of war.
Kudos must also go to conductor David Briskin and the National Ballet Orchestra. The music soared to glorious heights in the famous themes from Rimskij-Korsakov's Schéhérazade, while in complete contrast, the orchestra perfectly captured the edgy modernism of excerpts from the works of Shostakovich.
In Nijinsky, Neumeier has created a ballet for the ages.
Nijinsky continues at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until Nov. 30.
Editor's note: Francesco Gabriele Frola was the Young Man in Jeux. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.