One of the great masterpieces of modern ballet finally premieres in Australia. Bold, thrilling and heartbreaking, Nijinsky was well worth the wait
The link between madness and dance is ancient and unshakable; popular culture from Giselle to Black Swan fetishises the idea that dance can make you mad, and certainly the feverish world of ballet – with its inherent physical and psychological extremities – feels particularly vulnerable to the cliché.
Vaslav Nijinsky lived that cliché. He was the original superstar of ballet, arguably the most famous male dancer of the 20th century, but his stellar career was snipped in full bloom by the onset of schizophrenia. He had a tempestuous sexual relationship with his mentor and impresario, Serge Diaghilev, and a fraught and sometimes violent marriage to Romola de Pulszky, but his descent into mental illness came to define him, for better or worse.
John Neumeier – artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet – devised, designed and choreographed Nijinsky in 2000, and it’s taken Australian Ballet’s artistic director David McAllister 15 years to convince him to let us have it. It’s undeniably been worth the wait; the piece is clearly one of the great masterpieces of modern ballet, and a major coup.
Opening in the ballroom in St Moritz where Nijinsky performed for the last time, the ballet is separated into two discrete parts: the first act is a kind of reverie of his life, supported and haunted by the ghosts of Nijinsky’s most celebrated roles; the second act is pure abstraction, and deals almost exclusively with the inner torments that eventually overwhelmed the man. The first is good, often very good. The second is phenomenal.
There is a fine line in dance between the literal and the suggestive; moves that seem descriptive in one moment can turn opaque and mysterious in the next. Neumeier exploits this brilliantly, flipping the biographical elements into the purely psychological with the swiftness of a tyrant. The effect is deeply disturbing and sad.
In the role of Nijinsky, Alexandre Riabko is nothing short of breathtaking. The technical demands of the part are frequently jaw-dropping, but it is the emotional and mental demands that really elevate the performance. Nijinsky, for all his violence and petulance, is a truly tragic figure, and Riabko makes us feel the precipitousness and euphoria of the man, the triumphs almost dependent on the terrors. Virtuosity rarely feels so devastating.
The rest of the company are almost as good. Adam Bull is a stately and powerful presence as Diaghilev, and Amy Harris is superb as Romola. Both have pas de deux with Riabko that are beautifully tender, and it feels like something of a milestone for the Australian Ballet that both sexual relationships are afforded the same dignity and passion.
Chengwu Guo as the Spirit of the Rose and Christiano Martino as the Faun are stunning, and the corps are often exhilarating. Orchestra Victoria, under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon, play the magnificent score with total confidence and sensitivity.
Neumeier is in complete control of every element of this ballet – his design is glorious, consistently inventive and apt – and the result is a singularity of vision that is genuinely rare. There are great swathes of the piece that are almost unbearably feverish and others that are achingly moving, and the whole thing is likely to leave audiences drained. Thrilled, elated but drained. It’s the price you pay for genius.
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