Nijinsky: The Australian Ballet

State Theatre, Melbourne, September 7; Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 11.

JOHN Neumeier, the choreographer and longtime artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, has made a deep study of Vaslav Nijinsky and is a noted collector of material associated with the dancer. Neumeier’s ballet on the subject is a natural extension of that passion, and he holds the ballet close. The Australian Ballet is only the third company to perform Nijinsky, after the Hamburg Ballet (the premiere was in 2000) and National Ballet of Canada.

Neumeier was, of course, in Melbourne when the AB opened Nijinsky on September 7 with one of his Hamburg dancers, Alexandre Riabko, in the title role. This, by the way, was a first for the AB in many decades. During Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign and so far in McAllister’s 15-year tenure opening night honours have been reserved –always – for an AB dancer.

Riabko is back for the Sydney season of Nijinsky – there are four casts – but AB principal Kevin Jackson danced the first performance and had a mighty success. It was touching to see him kneel to Neumeier when the choreographer came on stage to take a bow. McAllister said later that Neumeier, who was in Sydney for just a couple of days, had made a detour on his way from Hamburg to Canada to be at the opening. It’s a long detour, and a measure perhaps of how much this ballet means to him.

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Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

It’s an important ballet for the AB too. Its repertoire of full-length narrative works is otherwise heavily weighted towards a small number of ballets guaranteed to be box-office friendly: last year there were Swan Lake (the Graeme Murphy version, Sydney only), Giselle, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty; this year featured Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version), Coppélia, Romeo & Juliet (resident choreographer Stanton Welch visiting with his Houston Ballet); and next year audiences are offered The Sleeping Beauty again, Nutcracker (the Murphy version) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In those three years only Alice, made in 2011, is truly new.

The AB could, I suppose, try to argue that in 2017 there’s a necessity to stage familiar titles in the second half of the year as it then has to decamp from the Sydney Opera House while the Joan Sutherland Theatre’s stage machinery is upgraded. That would work if the program looked different from any other year, but it doesn’t. (It is true, however, that next year Sydney will see Gabriela Tylesova’s Beauty sets to much greater advantage in the Capitol Theatre than at the Opera House, and that Alice also needs a larger stage than the Joan Sutherland’s.)

Nijinsky could not be more different from those works, with their crystal-clear, linear, familiar storylines told in conventional ballet language. Neumeier stretched the company and, if audience chatter is anything to go by, gave patrons a significant shot in the arm.

We have no film of Nijinsky performing, only the reports of those who saw him. Of the four works he choreographed, only one, L’après-midi d’un faune, was notated. It’s not much to go on but no one argues against Nijinsky’s status as the performing artist who changed the way men danced and what they danced.

Despite being socially awkward offstage, onstage Nijinsky could be anything. He was the strange and shockingly lascivious creature in L’après-midi d’un faune, the tragic puppet Petrouchka, the exotic Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, the soulful Poet in Les Sylphides, the skittish young man in Jeux. As the star dancer in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes he became one of the hottest properties on the European stage, a sex symbol whose undies were filched as trophies. As a choreographer he made only a handful of works but they landed like hand-grenades.

Nijinsky was always a bit odd, and then much more than that. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and left the stage after a career lasting only a decade. His last public performance was for an invited audience and was held in a St Moritz hotel ballroom. According to his wife Romola, after an extended silence Nijinsky told his audience, “Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.”

The ballroom, with its curved white balcony and glittering chandeliers (Neumeier also designed), is where the piece poignantly starts. There is some semblance of normalcy as the chattering classes come to see Nijinsky, although it is best to draw a veil over the AB’s handling of this non-dancing scene of mixing, mingling and air-kisses, particularly as seen in Sydney. It was painful. Finally, thankfully, they take their seats and Nijinsky enters. Soon the reality of the room fades and images from Nijinsky’s ballets, his family and his torments mingle freely with the topsy-turvy logic of an imperfectly remembered world.

The fractured evocations of the Ballets Russes days are thrilling as familiar characters dash in and out, just as they might in a dream. Diaghilev appears, carrying the Golden Slave, who then performs a dance of extraordinary sensuality. Here are ballerinas from the Mariinsky in their snowy white tutus, and there the harem girls from Schéhérazade glowing in gorgeous hues. The Faun returns again and again with his enigmatic two-dimensional walk and erotic charge (a working knowledge of Nijinsky’s ballets is exceptionally helpful to getting the most from the evening).

Neumeier balances this heady rush of mashed-up history with more intimate scenes between Vaslav and Romola and, in Act II, with members of his family. Here we also see Petrouchka, clad in a black and white version of his costume – a superb inspiration – as one of war’s victims. The puppet’s pain and that of the world are inextricably tangled.

At the Melbourne premiere, Nijinsky’s torment was darkly internalised by Riabko, who was like a tightly coiled spring. Jackson’s emotions were closer to the surface; his wounded innocence was greatly affecting. While Romola is at best a divisive figure as far as history is concerned, Neumeier treats her sympathetically while not shying away from the rumours of infidelity. With Riabko, Amy Harris gave Romola strength and resilience while in Sydney, Amber Scott’s fragility made visible the shared tragedy of husband and wife.

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov (Melbourne) gave a brilliantly etched Bronislava Nijinska, rather more convincingly than Ako Kondo (Sydney). A special mention must go to Brett Simon, a heart-wrenching Petrouchka in Melbourne. In Sydney Andrew Killian made less of an impression. In both casts Adam Bull smouldered darkly as Diaghilev and young corps de ballet member François-Eloi Lavignac was riveting as Vaslav’s afflicted brother Stanislav. Dancing both the Golden Slave and the Faun, soloist Jarryd Madden was breathtakingly sensuous.

Nijinsky’s first half is danced to three movements from Rimsky-Korsakov’s luscious score for Schéhérazade – you could feel the audience almost fainting with delight – alongside Chopin, Schumann and Shostakovich. The second half is given over to Shostakovich’s brooding, troubling Symphony No. 11. Orchestra Victoria (Melbourne) and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (Sydney) did the honours with the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. At the Sydney opening night curtain call she seemed to be fighting back tears as the crowd stood and cheered lustily. Well, it is a rare sight in that house. Too rare.

Nijinsky, Sydney Opera House until November 28.

Parts of this review first appeared in Limelight Magazine.

2 thoughts on “Nijinsky: The Australian Ballet

  1. Another brilliantly vivid review Deborah. Nijinsky thrilled Melbourne audiences like nothing else. Hope it is having a similar effect in Sydney. Who knows when we will next see such a thrilling work that stretches Australian audiences and dancers alike.

    • There isn’t enough of it, is there? The programming at the moment is so very safe. A very small pool of full-length ballets and the same names rotating on the contemporary bills. Nijinsky would suggest you can go a bit further than that.

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