Close encounters with Nijinsky: Hamburg Ballet’s outstanding Australian premiere

For his ballet, Nijinsky, the choreographer, John Neumeier burrows deep into the mind of the great dancer to tell of his descent into madness.

Through intimate encounters and choreographed landscapes depicting Nijinsky’s memories and fears, the life of the dancer is brought to the stage in the dance equivalent of a stream of consciousness.

The audience can empathise with Nijinsky as he speaks through dance of his confusion and passions, while also observing his disintegration, as if they are watching a human exhibit in a gallery.

This week’s Australian premiere of Neumeier’s work, created for his Hamburg Ballet in 2000, was a fine showcase for the company and a powerful example of the way in which Neumeier’s dancers bring intense focus to their task. Their performances demonstrate their innate ability to reach the audience through their acting skills as well as their accomplishment as classically trained ballet dancers.

Dancing as Nijinsky, Alexandre Riabko’s performance was a tour de force that called on both mental and physical stamina. With his clean technique and breadth of movement, Riabko projects to the back of the house. But through gesture and facial expression, he also draws attention to the vulnerability of Nijinsky – the way in which he was both manipulated and adored by Diaghilev and protected with more tender affection by his wife, Romola.

The ballet begins at the Suvretta House, a St Moritz hotel where Nijinsky gave his last public performance in 1919. He takes his place on a chair and stares into space as a smattering of hotel guests watch, squirming slightly in their own chairs in embarrassment and confusion.

When Nijinsky finally stands, he dances with gawky tension, then, more elegantly, displays his once great virtuosity, until he thinks he sees Diaghilev watching from a balcony.

The glimpse is like a bullet to his head. From that moment, the ballet moves into the past, as Nijinsky recalls his days in Russia, his erotic encounters with Diaghilev, his meeting with Romola, their marriage, his memories of his family and finally his collapse into a husk of a man, pulled across the stage on a small trolley, like a drugged animal.

Throughout the two acts of the ballet, a ghostly audience dressed in Edwardian attire threads its way through the scenes, moving in slow motion as they applaud Nijinsky’s performances.

The dancers playing the main roles of Nijinsky (Riabko), Romola (Anna Polikarpova), and Diaghilev (Ivan Urban), are long standing members of the Hamburg Ballet and have danced in these roles many times. Their familiarity with the roles is to their advantage and it’s a pleasure to see dancers with this level of maturity.

Polikarpova, in particular, is the kind of dancer-actor beloved by the late Pina Bausch- melancholy, watchful, gracious, then at breaking point near the end as she dances a little charleston while trying to deal with Nijinsky’s final collapse.

Another Hamburg Ballet veteran, ballet master, Lloyd Riggins, dances the role of Petrushka in a black and white, funereal version of Nijinsky’s original colourful costume in that ballet.

In this role, Riggins is also a harbinger of death, dancing with soldiers wearing unbuttoned military jackets. The soldiers are ghosts in Nijinsky’s mind as he recalls the bloodshed of the first world war.

The choreography and mood of this penultimate scene reminded me of Leonide Massine’s warlike dance of death in Les Presages.

Throughout, snippets of Nijinsky’s career are portrayed with Thiago Bordin dancing as both the Harlequin in Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose, in Spectre de la rose, Otto Bubenicek as the Golden Slave in Scheherazade and the Faun in L’Apres midi d’un faune and Alexandr Trusch as the Young Man in Jeux.

Bordin displays his exemplary technique and charm while Bubenicek and Trusch bring an eerie chilliness to their seductive characters.

As Stanislaw – Nijinsky’s brother – Aleix Martinez gave an outstanding performance as he shivered and shook into his own particular hell of madness.

Neumeier’s has referenced many choreographic styles in this work, showing Bronislava Nijinska (Patricia Tichy) stabbing her pointes across the stage, a la Les Noces, and Tamara Karsavina (Silvia Azzoni) as a sylph in the romantic style of Les Sylphides, as the clockwork doll Ballerina in Petrushka and as the elusive Nymph in L’Apres midi d’un faun.

Neumeier makes much use of intricate pas de trois and pas de deux. Among the best of these is a pas de deux for Nijinsky and Diaghilev that depicts Nijinsky, by turns, as a sacrifice, lover, and child like being in the grasp of the impresario.

Recurrent gestures and shapes throughout the ballet include arms held in a wide circle (an extended balletic port de bras first position), flexed feet, feet used to press on other’s bodies, and arms held in outward line from the body to form a cross. The cross shape recurs at the end of the ballet when Nijinsky rolls out one long black swathe of black fabric and one of scarlet, in which he wraps himself in his dance he called his ‘wedding with God”.

The circled arms echo the large white illuminated circles of the set that, in turn, mirror the circles Nijinksy made in his drawings (comprising concentric circles and eye shapes).

Always, Neumeier goes back to ballet’s base with Nijinsky’s dance beginnings represented in classical technique – plies, tendus, and port de bras.

Nijinsky is a Neumeier-fest as he also created the sets, lighting concept and costumes, the last based on original sketches by Diaghilev’s collaborators, Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois.

One oddity of the Australian premiere was the lack of a live orchestra. While the onstage pianist, Richard Hoynes, played the initial Chopin prelude and the Schumann music of Carnaval, the majority of the ballet was danced to a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor. The last would probably need an orchestra far too large to fit into the Playhouse of Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre, although the Queensland Symphony will play for Neumeier’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, presented at the Playhouse by the Hamburg Ballet from August 30.

Although Nijinsky might seem like a ballet for the cognoscenti, no dance history or knowledge is needed to appreciate the work. The meaning, intensity of the relationships and tragedy is all there in the dance vocabulary and the expressiveness of these Hamburg Ballet dancers.

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Alexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova, Otto Bubenicek, Nijinsky, photo © Holger Badekow

Alexandre Riabko, Silvia Azzoni, Nijinsky, photo © Holger Badekow