above: Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
The National Ballet of Canada presented the full-length ballet Nijinsky (2000), choreographed by award-winning John Neumeier, opening on Tuesday April 3, 2018 for a short run, produced by San Francisco Ballet as Program 6, at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. This Nijinsky is a fascinating journey set in 1919 with the last time the iconic dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky dances in public, at the ornate setting of a ballroom in the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz. Through memories Nijinsky reflects on his major roles as other dancers mirror him as the characters Nijinsky excelled in, dancing phrases and motifs from the original choreography – sometimes together – while Nijinsky, played brilliantly by Guillaume Côté imagines his life, his identity as an artist, and his great love for his mentor Serge Diaghilev, through turbulent times.
A well dressed audience assembles in the balcony of the ballroom and Côté as Nijinsky makes a dramatic entrance for his final performance. Neumeier, so inspired by Nijinsky’s life also designed the sets, costumes and concept for the lighting design. He has created a wonderful production which flows back and forth through Nijinsky’s major roles at the Ballet Russes, interspersed with characters from his own life. It’s dramatic and the complicity of witnessing this momentous time in Nijinsky’s life at the end of a compact but glittering career is compelling as Neumeier’s Nijinsky allows us a glimpse of his inner thoughts, feelings and eventual madness.
Act I encompasses Nijinsky’s well-known roles including Harlequin in Carnaval wearing a colorful diamond patterned costume, the poet in Les Sylphides, the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, the Spectre de la rose, L’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux and Le Sacre du Printemps. It’s bright, colorful with large vibrant ensembles, emotive duets, trios and theatrical mise en scène. Nijinsky’s family appears during the reverie of a virtual history of ballet – Bronislava, his sister (Jenna Savella), Stanislav, his brother (Dylan Tedaldi), his mother (Xiao Nan Yu), his father (Brent Parolin) and his wife Romula (Heather Ogden). Act 2 is darker and Harlequin’s costume is now gray and black symbolizing Nijinsky’s downward spiral, as he is haunted by sadness and the spectre or war is on the horizon.
Neumeier’s choreography, beautifully danced by the entire company is complex, with idiosyncratic movement of outstretched hands rising at different levels, precision footwork en pointe, obscure arms and folding legs with flexed feet – much of the original choreography was considered radical at the time, but now feels contemporary. David Briskin conducted the accomplished San Francisco Ballet Orchestra playing the enthralling and dramatic music of Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dmitri Shostakovich, with soloists, Viola by Yi Zhou and Piano by Andrei Streliaev. There’s also a spritely tennis player, a line of dancers in top hats, transforming surreal sets with two huge circular neon rings that float and merge slowly and more, breathtakingly tender duets and contact movement with Diaghilev (Evan McKie) the Faun (Francesco Gabriele Frola and Félix Paquet) and a very poignant pas de deux with Nijinsky and his wife (Ogden). There’s so much to admire in this work visually and viscerally, you just have to go and experience it!
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