Vaslav Nijinsky was one of ballet's greatest superstars, a cause célèbre of the early 1900s nicknamed "The God of Dance," whose choreography sparked an audience riot and whose personal life was a roller-coaster even before madness engulfed the last half of it. To portray such a complex legend is an unwieldy challenge, but the Hamburg Ballet does so brilliantly, in a too-short run in San Francisco through February 19, 2013.
A warning, though: Nijinsky is not a tidily-packaged story ballet. It is multi-layered, with the Polish dancer's real life (1889-1950), his ballet realm and his emotions, thoughts, dreams and demons intersecting. Seven men dance as the larger-than-life Nijinsky and his various ballet roles. The Hamburg Ballet is top-notch and artistic director John Neumeier's choreography fresh to watch, but the more you know about Nijinsky, the more you'll glean from the performance. And, very likely, the more you'll want to know.
The ballet legend mesmerized Neumeier early on. By age 10, Neumeier was interested in dance, but his Milwaukee hometown had no dance company or significant ballet school. The local library had only a handful of books about dance--one of them, The Tragedy of Nijinsky.
"I've never grown out of my 'Nijinsky phase,' nor has the constantly accumulated knowledge about the dancer ever disappointed my original, naive infatuation," Neumeier, who has collected a trove of Nijinsky drawings, artwork and other materials, has written in the ballet program notes. "[H]is artistic motivation remains my constant professional and moral example."
Hamburg Ballet's artistic director since 1974, Neumeier created Nijinsky for the 50th anniversary of the dancer's death. As with his ballet The Little Mermaid, which San Francisco Ballet performed in 2010 and 2011, Neumeier designed the choreography as well as the sets, costumes and lighting for Nijinsky.
The ballet opens--and closes--with a recreation of Nijinsky's final public performance, to invited guests at a St. Moritz hotel in 1919. He called it "My Wedding with God." They show mixed reactions to his odd, disjointed movements. But then, as Nijinsky suddenly imagines spotting among them his former lover, Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev, memories of his stardom and his childhood drift in.
We see Nijinsky in the iconic Ballets Russes roles that led the French in 1909 to praise him as "The God of Dance," such as the Harlequin (in Carnaval); Petrouchka; the Faun (The Afternoon of a Faun); and the sensuous Golden Slave (Scheherazade). Each represents a different part of Nijinsky's persona; as Neumeier said during a San Francisco opening night talk, he "was a different person to different people who knew him." We also see Nijinsky experiment with choreography, which would be "modern" by our standards but was alien in his day.
But Nijinsky's life swerves when he impulsively marries a Hungarian socialite-groupie, Romola, with whom he can barely communicate. Diaghilev fires him. With the bursts of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's score for Schéhérazade, the stage explodes with a colorful, almost dizzying phantasmagoria of wedding guests, harem girls and other Ballets Russes dancers.
The darker Act II centers on Nijinsky's inner world. Cut from Ballets Russes, Nijinsky tried but failed to launch his own dance company. That's just the first of many crises: World War I breaks out, his brother goes crazy, Romola cheats on him. Nijinsky is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Images and sounds of war and his brother's and his own mental torture pour out, along with recollections of his dancer-parents, his ballet training in St. Petersburg and early years with the Imperial Ballet.
To Dmitry Shostakovich's blaring, pounding Symphony No. 11 in G-minor, we experience the war's onslaught, Petrouchka's battering and the chaotic 1913 world premiere of Nijinsky's The Rite of Spring (which had an equally unconventional Igor Stravinsky score), during which the Paris audience heckled, brawled and fist-fought, the police were called in, and Nijinsky had to yell out counts to the dancers.
On opening night in San Francisco, Alexandre Riabko was superb in the title role, flowing easily between dancing the real and the subconscious. Aleix Martinez made us feel anguish and discomfort in portraying Nijinsky's disturbed brother. Throughout, the choreography, which blends classical with modern, is compelling to watch. Neumeier has multiple worlds interplay in pas de deux and pas de trois, and his detailed eye shows in repeating motifs of circles (which fascinated Nijinsky) and crosses. The opening night audience gave the company an extended standing ovation.
In the end, as Neumeier says, Nijinsky did not believe it was he who was mad. "He believed the world was mad--the world that could not stop World War I."
Nijinsky by The Hamburg Ballet
At War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Through Feb. 19, 2013