“Nijinsky” at SF Ballet


“Nijinsky” at SF Ballet

Carol Benet

One of the most amazing ballets of the first quarter of the 21st century is John Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” now at the San Francisco Ballet for all too short a run.  And although this is a guest production that uses the venue (War Memorial Opera House) and the fine San Francisco Ballet Orchestra this is really a production of The National Ballet of Canada that even comes with its excellent conductor David Briskin. The two soloists, pianist Andrei Streliaev and violist Zi Zhou also come from Canada.

That Helgi Thomasson, the Artistic Director and principal Choreographer of the SF Ballet brings this visiting ballet to us showing that he is so secure in exposing us to greatness. He only wants us to see the best in contemporary ballet.  “Nijinsky” is a full evening story ballet centered on the life and career of Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary dancer and choreographer whose last performance after a short professional career was in 1919.

Neumeier, an American spent his professional career in Germany working with the ballets of Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Hamburg.  He has won many awards including, in 2015,  the coveted Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy, one of the highest paying prizes in existence paying him $400,000.

Neumeier’s works stem from the general German theater, opera and ballet aesthetic, one that is not afraid of innovation and thanks to public subsidies reaches a wide audience including the next generation that is to important if the arts are to continue and flourish. We have not caught up with the sets, costumes, lighting designs that to us seem as strange as the choreography.

The avant garde in the arts is the normal for the German stage.

The life of Nijinsky has always fascinated Neumeier and through the years he has assembled the largest private collection of memorabilia and literature about the famed artist.

Biographies about Diaghilev also highlight the  relationship between the two men,  but the most revisionist is Sjeng Scheijen’s book “Diaghilev: A Life” (Oxford, 2010) that turns the accepted lore about Nijinsky and Diaghilev up-side down. Rather than the belief that it was Diaghilev who pursued and corrupted Nijinsky whom he mentored and took as a lover, it was the other way around.  Nijinsky was heterosexual and chased his elder to further his own career.

But Neumeier uses the earlier and accepted version of the story in his ballet showing a swarmy Mephisto looking impresario Diaghilev (danced by Piotr Stanczyk) stalking and controling his younger student who soon became a star.  But this is the more dramatic story line to follow as we see Nijinsky’s life and sanity depending on the  tug between his love for his wife Romola (Sonia Rodriguez)  and the pull of the older man Diaghillev.  Skylar Campbell’s portrayal of Nijinsky is nothing but spectacular, especially in the scenes where he is going mad with schizophrenia in his later life so affected by the horrors of World War I.

The ballet starts in medias res well-dressed couples come into a large elegant room.  They are loudly talking to each other as if the ballet had not started yet.  One couple comes up to the on-stage pianist Andrei Streliaev who is playing a popular Schumann piece, “Arabesque in C Minor”,  and whispers to him to play something else which he does.  They ask for a waltz and begin to dance.  Much fascinating stage business takes place as more and more couples arrive.  They are all in gorgeous costumes.  These and the ones later from the original ballets and the sets  were created by Neumeier who was inspired by sketches by Lèon Bakst and Alexandre Benois.  The stage is absolutely stunning.

The story follows the ballets with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Schéhèrazade” danced in three of the four movements, a feat that few orchestras attempt.  You usually hear excerpts of this exotic music in concert.  But here Neumeier does not jump from score to score but provides a unified musical background for the references to the several dances he performed or created. The figure of the Golden Slave is danced by Kota Sato and later Francesco Gabriele Frola.  The same twosome take the parts of the Faun in Nijinsky’s most famous ballet “L’Après-midi d’un faune”.  Again Neumeier continues with the same music rather than that of Debussy here.

Soon the moody and threatening music of Shostakovich predominates, first with  his  “Sonata for Viola and Piano” and in the Second Act “Symphony No. 11”, both thoughtful and somber works fitting of the subject of the 10 years of Nijinsky’s creative life.

The  Second Act depicts the soldiers in World War I, marching, falling and some returning damaged.  This along with Nijinsky’s growing insanity, make a very sobering experience to witness.   The feeling surrounding this ballet is one of fear for the audience, especially in these times with an unstable and ignorant head of state who threatens war heedlessly.

For beautiful dance, costumes, sets, music and a gripping story, Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” is the peak of the form. It premiered in San Francisco in 2013 and returned in 2018.  Let’s hope it becomes a part of the repertory.

Tickets from sfballet.org.