Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’
Hamburg Ballet Performance at the San Francisco Ballet
February 19, 2013
This is a huge, sprawling production done with imaginative, elaborate staging and lighting and superb technical skill from the dancers. It is inspired by the troubled life of Vaslav Nijinsky the famous Russian/Polish ballet dancer from the early 20th century. It is not an easy ballet to follow or immediately grasp. Some aspects of the ballet seem to refer to events and relationships in Nijinsky’s life and some aspects seem to represent states of his inner life or fantasies, and some seem to be blends of the two. There are ambiguities that seem to working on several different levels at the same time. I came to the performance completely unprepared. I didn’t know anything about Nijinsky except that he was a famous dancer and I didn’t know anything about the events of his life. The result was I found the performance rather confusing and obscure.
When I attend a theatrical performance, I am always most interested in the concept of the piece, it’s psychological import and meaning, it’s cultural and historical significance. I think about who wrote this and why. What were they trying to get across.
In this performance those aspects are not easy to grasp. Unless you are an expert on the history of ballet and know a lot about the life of Nijinsky, you are not likely to get all the references and allusions in this performance. I went with a friend who happens to hold a doctoral degree in musicology and she did not get it either, although she got a lot more of it than I did. She at least knew who he was and his significance, and was able to make connections to some of the other ballets he had been in and she knew a most of the music that was used. But she did not know the biographical details of Nijinsky’s life and was thus unable to understand much of what was going on.
I was able to discern that it was a kind of retrospective, that many of the sequences represented the contents of the lead dancer’s mind, reminiscences of things that had happened in the past. There was at least one and probably multiple triangles involving two men and a woman. I’m not sure if it was the same woman in all of them. There was a wedding, that was clear, but the character of the marriage was not clear. The second act seemed to be a descent into psychosis with references to the war (World War 1) and many deaths. The second act had a surreal quality that was less accessible to being grasped intellectually, but in my eyes it had a more powerful emotional and psychological impact.
This ballet should be very popular among experts on the ballet. The general public will have a harder time with it unless a special effort is made to prepare in advance. I studied for several months before attending the Ring of the Nibelung cycle in 2011, and that preparation paid off. However, I don’t really want to have to do that with every performance, but this is one of that sort where significant early preparation would make a big difference. Art should be challenging and it should push us beyond our natural boundaries of understanding and perception. My feeling, in this case, is that the authors did not think enough about who the audience was going to be and the impact that it would have on a naive viewer, which is what most of them are going to be, at least in the United States. Since this is a large scale production aimed at an audience made up of people who are mostly not experts on ballet and certainly not steeped in the details of Vaslav Nijinsky’s life, it could have been done in a way that would have made it more immediately accessible. This production might have worked well as an opera. It does seem to lend itself to that kind of grand conceptual enactment. The verbal aspect available in opera would have helped a lot in terms of making it intelligible to a viewer not steeped in the life of Nijinsky.
Having said all of that, I still like this. I liked that it was a big concept, that they were trying to do something with substance and powerful emotional significance, as opposed to gentle entertainment. This was a performance with real import, although the character of it was not immediately evident. It had narrative elements, it had subjective explorations of the inner life, it had allusions to historical events that were of relevant to the story line as well as the psychological development of the characters. It was imaginatively staged, flawlessly executed, and superbly performed. It is the kind of performance I like to attend. I came to it unprepared, which was my own fault. But even unprepared this ballet wins the audience over on the strength of its imaginative conception and first rate execution.