2016: The past, the present, and a very big challenge of the future

A hundred years ago the Ziegfeld Follies opened on Broadway with Bachelor Days, a vaudeville show that included a song titled Nijinsky.

Sung by the comedian, Fanny Brice, wearing a tutu, Nijinsky referred to the dancer’s fame following his appearance in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’ American tour in January 1916.

Vaslav Nijinsky was an early 20th century celebrity, a man who could be either spoofed or adored, or both, by a slightly bewildered American audience.

After that first American visit, Nijinsky himself led another Ballets Russes’ tour through the United States, between October 1916 to February 1917.

The two tours inspired the artist, Max Weber, to create ‘The Russian Ballet’, an oil painting that encapsulated the energy and excitement of the Ballets Russes.

Weber, a Cubist, had much in common with Diaghilev and his protégé and former lover, Nijinsky.

The artist lived in New York, but, like Diaghilev and Nijinsky, he was born in Russia and spent much of his time in the early 20th century in Paris, where the Ballets Russes first performed.

New York was the first and last stop of the Ballets Russes’ American tour led by Nijinsky and the city where his ballet, Till Eulenspiegel, was first performed.

The ballet was not a failure, but it did mark the beginning of the end for Nijinsky whose life as a dancer ended with his subsequent descent into schizophrenia.

In 1919 he danced for the last time for guests at the hotel, Suvretta House in St Moritz.

That performance is depicted in the opening scenes of John Neumeier’s 2000 ballet, Nijinsky, to be performed for the first time by the Australian Ballet this year.

It will also mark the first time that the Australian company has performed a ballet choreographed by Neumeier.

Nijinsky himself remains in the public consciousness as a fascinating figure whose life is still worth exploring.

Adding to the numerous books on Nijinsky, written since the 1930s, is Lucy Moore’s biography published last year.

In 1971, Richard Buckle’s biography of Nijinksy summed up the dancer’s life as: “Ten years of growth, ten years of learning, ten years of dancing, thirty years of darkness. Altogether some sixty years. How long he will live on in people’s memories, we can only guess”.

Almost a century after the rise and fall of Nijinksy, another Russian ballet tragedy entered the history books of dance for all the wrong reasons – the notorious acid attack on Sergei Filin artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in January 2013.

An HBO film co-directed by Nick Read and Mark Franchetti, the Moscow correspondent at The Sunday Times, will be a lasting memory of the disaster and the resulting shame for the company.

Titled Bolshoi Babylon, the film depicts a year in the life of the Bolshoi Ballet covering the details of the attack and the time when Vladimir Urin was appointed the director of the Bolshoi Theatre.

It’s already been released on HBO in the United States and will be released next week in the United Kingdom.

There is no news yet of a cinema or TV release in Australia but a DVD is available to pre-order later this month.

Judging from US and UK reviews one of the most compelling scenes takes place at a company meeting during which Urin tells Filin to shut up and sit down.

After the documentary was completed, Urin told Filin his contract would not be renewed when it expired this coming March.

His successor from 18 March is Makhar Vaziev, now head of the ballet company at La Scala, Milan and formerly a principal artist of the Mariinsky Ballet and its director from 1995 to 2008.

Why he would take the job is a mystery because as Bolshoi Babylon indicates, the company was, is and will probably always be a toxic environment riddled with intrigue.

Ismene Brown, an English dance writer who knows more than most about the Bolshoi, says the most amazing part of the transition is that Urin “was abolishing the job Filin occupied, and refashioning it with responsibilities and command chains that could not help looking much diminished in authority.

“No longer would the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet be given the hallowed title of khudruk, with the final say; the position would be artisticheskii direktor, a member of a team directorate answering to the theatre head, Urin himself”.

Another major change of leadership, but with far less angst I suppose, is in progress at the Stuttgart Ballet.

This year marks Reid Anderson’s 20th as artistic director.

His contract will end following the 2017-2018 season and his successor will be Tamas Detrich, a principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet for 20 years and associate artistic director since 2009.

Detrich was born in New York but trained at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart, graduating in 1977.

The Cranko heritage is the top priority at the Stuttgart Ballet so it’s clear that Detrich must have the full support of Dieter Graefe who retains the rights to the Cranko ballets.

Detrich was in the first cast of Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land.

First performed by the Stuttgart Ballet in 1981 the ballet is the centrepiece of the Australian Ballet triple bill titled Vitesse, premiering in Melbourne in March.

The final work in that triple bill is William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a ballet that on 26 February will enter the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s repertoire.

The triple bill also includes the NZ premiere of Cacti, Alexander Ekman’s very witty take on the clichés of contemporary ballet choreography.

Surely there’s been some Australia-NZ program collaboration because Cacti will also open the Sydney Dance Company’s 2016 season in Sydney on 26 February.

The busiest ballet choreographer of the moment is not Alexei Ratmansky for a change but Liam Scarlett.

Already a major force in the dance world, this year looks like a landmark year for the English choreographer.

Fearful Symmetries, his new work for the San Francisco Ballet, will premiere this month.

The San Francisco Ballet’s rehearsal of the ballet, filmed for World Ballet Day 2015, shows the power and exhilaration of the ballet, danced to music by John Adams.

This isn’t the first Fearful Symmetries ballet.

In 1990 the New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins choreographed a ballet with the same name to Adams’ score that, in turn, refers to a phrase in the William Blake’s poem, The Tyger:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It’s not a premiere but Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will return to the stage in April, danced by the Queensland Ballet, and in May the Royal Ballet will premiere Scarlett’s first full-length narrative work for the company based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The commissioned score is by Lowell Liebermann and the designs by John Macfarlane.

Ratmansky has chosen Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium for his new work for American Ballet Theatre, premiering in New York in May.

All we know so far is that it “explores the nature of love” as did Plato in his text on various ideas about love.

The glamorous dance event of the year is likely to be in London when in June the superstar Natalia Osipova picks up where Sylvie Guillem left off with a program of contemporary pieces she has commissioned from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita at Sadlers Wells.

The extra-glamour element is the involvement of Sergei Polunin who will dance with Osipova for the first time in the UK.

In Brisbane in July the Queensland Ballet’s triple bill, Lest We Forget, will remind us that we are still moved by the impact on our lives of World War I.

The three ballets are Paul Taylor’s Company B (1991), danced to the songs of the Andrew Sisters, and two new works, In the Best Moments, choreographed by Ma Cong, and inspired by The Hours Suite by Philip Glass, and Natalie Weir’s We Who Are Left.

If Swan Lake is subject to more reconstructions than any other ballet, and Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty are not far behind, the ballet Giselle is seldom reinvented although Mats Ek and Garry Stewart have taken the challenge.

(The RNZB’s Giselle choreographed by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg doesn’t count as a reinvention because it stayed so true to the original ballet).

This year there’ll be another Giselle with Akram Khan recreating the romantic era ballet for the English National Ballet.

The designer is Tim Yip and the Australian composer, Ben Frost, will adapt the original score by Adam.

The co-production of the Manchester International Festival and Sadler’s Wells, commissioned by Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of ENB, opens in Manchester in September.

Rojo says she’s “incredibly excited that Akram accepted this challenge. I believe this will be a very important step for the whole art form”.

A new Giselle with a reworked Adam score is a very big challenge and may well be the most difficult choreographic task of 2016.

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Max Weber, Russian Ballet, 1916, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum

Tamas Detrich, photo © Roman Novitzky

Lloyd Riggins in Neumeier’s Nijinsky, photo © Erik Tomasson

Luciana Paris, American Ballet Theatre, Company B, Paul Taylor, photo © Rosalie O’Conn

Makhar Vaziev, photo © Belga Image

Sergei Polunin and Natalia Osipova, curtain call after Giselle at La Scala, Milan, April 2015

Sheet music cover, Bachelor Days, Ziegfeld Follies of 1916

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in Dust from Lest We Forget by English National Ballet in 2014, photo © Tristram Kenton

Liam Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries rehearsal, San Francisco Ballet, World Ballet Day 2015