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About the Change

Hamburg Ballet


20th February 2004
New York City, City Center

by Eric Taub

© Hamburg Ballet

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Perhaps I should've known what I was getting myself into when I went to see the Hamburg Ballet present John Neumeier's dance-spectacle "Nijinsky" at City Center last Friday. Although I didn't care for Neumeier's work years ago when I'd last seen it, I thought that perhaps either Neumeier, or my perceptions of his particular style of theatricality, had mellowed. Besides, Vaslav Nijinsky is a source of endless interest for me (as for most ballet-lovers, I'm sure), so I couldn't resist the opportunity to see Neumeier's take on the famous dancer who captured the world's attention in the early 1900's, only to be consumed by schizophrenia. Not wanting to come off as yet another Balanchine-blinkered New Yorker, unable to appreciate the great strides made in the world of European dance-theater, I really wanted to like Nijinsky. Honest. But there's an old adage in the world of expository writing which says "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've told them," and Neumeier's work is quite effective at the first and third parts, but misses out completely on the middle.

The ballet begins with a realistic-looking re-enactment of Nijinsky's final performance in 1919, a solo, with the modest title "Marriage with God," at a hotel near the sanitarium where he was confined for treatment of his increasingly unmanageable schizophrenia. As Nijinsky starts dancing, he's joined by dancers representing members of his family, his most famous roles, and, of course, Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, who became Nijinsky's lover as he managed Nijinsky's ever-swelling fame. We see surrealistic depictions of various moments in Nijinsky's life, sometimes refracted through the lens of his signature characters, for instance, his love for Diaghilev is depicted by the Spectre of the Rose, with Diaghilev as the dreamer in the chair, rather than Karsavina (who also makes some cameo appearances), or when his wife-to-be, Romola, infamously seduces him on a steamship trip to South America. As she does so, she watches, not Nijinsky, but his embodiment as the Faun from L'Apres-Midi d'Une Faune. Later (much later), the denizens of his asylum/World-War-One-soldiers (it's all the same, isn't it?) are led by none other than Petrouchka. The Golden Slave from Scheherezade and Harlequin from Carneval also wander in and out of the action (for want of a better word).

John Neumeier's Nijinsky
© Hamburg Ballet

The ballet's first half displays, after a fashion, Nijinsky's relationship with Diaghilev, his seduction by and marriage to Romola, and Diaghilev's abandonment of Nijinsky. The second half shows, at great length, the death of Nijinsky's brother, Stanislas, who also suffered from schizophrenia, and draws some heavy handed comparisons between World War One and the Nijinsky's insane asylum, before bringing us back to the original recital, although in a fractured vision. From time to time we see two huge fluorescent circles being raised from the floor, and lowered again, doubtless a reference to Nijinsky's growing infatuation with geometric patterns as he grew more disturbed. In fact, we see lots of elements from Nijinsky's life, mushed together and reconstituted, yet I found myself with no more understanding of Nijinsky at the end of this lengthy, massive work than I'd had at the beginning. There are many historical allusions here: for example, Romola's suggested infidelities, and Nijinsky's famous counting-out of the beats for the premiere of his Rite of Spring, as the outraged audience's uproar drowned out the music (then, not now!).

Although many of the Hamburg company's dancers are indeed strong and interesting to watch, they seemed dreadfully miscast. Jiri Bubenicek, who plays the "real" Nijinsky, has a strong technique, but constantly glowers, like he's bit into something unpleasantly sour, and is wondering if he's broken a tooth in the bargain. Neither his dancing, nor the tortured and angular steps Neumeier has created for him (and everyone else), give any sense of Nijinsky's great charisma and ambivalent, yet powerful sexuality. The dancers who portrayed the Spectre, Golden Slave and Faun had fine techniques, but, again, suggested none of Nijinsky's magnetism, which is present in abundance in the even his most faded photographs. Only Lloyd Riggins, as Petrouchka, seemed moving and authentic; I'd have loved to have seen him dance Nijinsky. Ivan Urban's Diaghilev looks to be more of a blonde surfer-boy than an aging, powerful father-figure. I know Neumeier has said viewers shouldn't expect his leads to physically resemble their historic counterparts, but still, the contrasts between the dancers and their historical originals can be jarring, especially when there's little in his choreography to suggest the nuances of the relationship between Nijinsky and Diaghilev, or between Nijinsky and anyone, really. Nijinsky and Diaghilev share some rather mild and conventional homoerotic duets; I never had a sense of what attracted Diaghilev to Nijinsky, or what Diaghilev represented to Nijinsky: powerful protector, teacher, dom to Nijinsky's sub, or, what? Similarly, I got little sense of Romola as the talentless Yoko Ono (forgive me, Yoko fans) breaking up this generation's version of the Beatles.

John Neumeier's Nijinsky
© Hamburg Ballet

Perhaps if Neumeier had done some serious pruning, this ballet might have been more tolerable, but his infatuation with heavy-handed symbolism (do we really need the Golden Slave to reprise his famous dying head-stand to tell us a lot of people died in WWI, especially when delivered so dispassionately?) and leisurely development (the key duet between Romola and Nijinsky in the second act becomes almost excruciatingly drawn-out, as dancers representing inmates/soldiers pace in slow-motion across the back of the stage, or the endless depictions of Stanislas' madness and death) obliterate any insights he might have made more clear with a drastically tighter focus. Moreover, for all Neumeier's many juxtapositions (some clever indeed) between the real and fictional characters in Nijinsky's life, his portrait of the artist ultimately had no depth, like an eye-grabbing collage which nevertheless remains paper-thin, and here, really, is my greatest dissatisfaction with the ballet, that it promised so much, and delivered so little, and with such great fanfare. It takes more to tell a story than simply animating cardboard-cutout figures and watching them collide, however fanciful or historically erudite those collisions, and there's something depressingly smug in Neumeier's retelling, as if, with this feat of half-baked reanimation, and heavy handed symbolism he were really telling something profound. Perhaps I simply have a huge blind spot for this sort of thing, as I know "Nijinsky" has received glowing reviews wherever it's gone, but I can't help but contrast the psycho-dramatic works of, say, Tudor, with Neumeier's, and see more insight and character development in the twitch of a finger in a Tudor solo than all the gyrations and bombast in Nijinsky. Am I guilty of seeing Neumeier and wanting him to be Tudor? I hope not, although I do think there's a lesson in making the contrast to Tudor's work, or to how Balanchine depicted another artist's descent into madness in Robert Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze. For all Neumeier's grandiosity, he can't simply tell a story about Nijinksy, or let his story speak for itself. What, in the end, is Neumeier trying to say about Nijinksy? I left the theater with no idea at all. Of course Nijinsky will always be a fascinating enigma, and the ultimate disappointment here isn't that this work didn't get past the surface of the historical figure, but that, in the end, Neumeier's "Nijinsky" didn't even give us Neumeier's Nijinsky.

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