Hamburg Ballet | Dance review

Alexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova and Otto Bubenicek in Neumeier's Nijinsky.

Alexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova and Otto Bubenicek in Neumeier's Nijinsky. Photograph: Holger Badekow

There were tears of joy at the conclusion of Hamburg Ballet’s Chicago debut last night, mostly from company director/choreographer John Neumeier. The audience showed its appreciation with a standing ovation. It was a memorable homecoming for the Midwest native who’s been based in Europe for more than 40 years. For it, he brought his much-anticipated story-ballet Nijinsky, playing two nights at the Harris Theater. 

Neumeier has described Vaslav Nijinsky as the first super star of the 20th century. It’s evident, based on this performance, that his admiration for the dance-great runs deeper than casual fascination. Neumeier, one of the world’s most extensive collectors of Nijinsky memorabilia, sets out to convey a man whose influence was (and still is) significant to the evolution of ballet. A famous and tragic story, Nijinsky’s legend is one of obsession, polarization and glamour: He was bisexual, genetically predisposed to schizophrenia, stirred controversy with unconventional work and ultimately institutionalized. Sounds built for Hollywood. (And it was. See Herbert Ross’s biopic Nijinsky.) In this case, Neumeier’s “present-tense” vision is more than admirable; it’s larger-than-life. 

Nijinsky opens on January 19, 1919 at the Suvretta House Hotel in Switzerland, the place of the famed dancer's last public performance. An adoring crowd gathers in the hotel lobby, anticipating his entrance. When he arrives (an inspired performance from Alexandre Riabko), the descent into madness begins. A modernized contemporary solo—by current standards engaging—nearly frightens the public; they’re not sure whether to clap or leave the room. The mood shifts from reverence to confusion.  

The piece centralizes on Riabko’s Nijinsky figure, though other iterations appear from different ballets—Spectre de la Rose, L’Après-midi d’un faune, Scheherazade. It’s a retrospective of the past, looking back on his life and his creations. The story becomes more complex with the addition of Ballets Russes founder, and Nijinsky’s one-time lover, Serge Diaghilev (Carsten Jung). A riveting duet between Riabko and Jung makes no subtle commentary on the duo’s scandalous relationship. There’s also reference to Nijinsky’s wife Romola and his sister Bronislava. These interactions drive the first half of the performance, undoubtedly the more fanciful of the two acts.

The conflict heightens in the second act: the advent of World War I, Romola’s infidelity. The one distraction: a series of overly literal screeching meant to invoke “madness.” In two and a half hours, Neumeier’s delicate and violent portrait fluxes between extremes. Extravagant costumes and beautiful set designs, are met with often-busy choreography, meant to mimic the title character’s schizophrenic mind. The ballet’s comprehensive construction, though, is quite lucid.  

Catch the final performance of Nijinsky tonight at the Harris Theater at 7:30pm.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)