Kevin Jackson seizes the day with his Sydney debut as Nijinsky

The opening night of Neumeier’s Nijinsky in Sydney was Remembrance Day, the 11th of November, a day that marks the end of hostilities in World War I.

Of course the timing was coincidental, but the date seemed to have an unusual relevance to one of the most powerful moments of the ballet when, in Act 2, Nijinsky’s memories of the horror of the war are depicted in a scene for a corps of men, dressed in open military jackets, marching across the stage and forming a circle into which the despairing character of Petrouchka appears.

Petrouchka was the saddest of all the roles danced by Nijinsky, whose life, in retrospect, was much like the puppet’s entrapment in a cell.

Nijinsky’s own war years began in Budapest where, as an enemy alien, he was placed in house arrest.

Rescued by Diaghilev, Nijinsky toured with the Ballets Russes to New York, Spain and South America, after which he moved with his wife, Romola, to St Moritz.

By 1919 Nijinsky was expressing his fear in paintings depicting staring eyes within circular shapes.

They were, he said, “soldiers’ faces”.

At the hotel, Suvretta House in Switzerland, before he danced in public for the last time, Nijinsky told the hotel guests: “Now I will dance you the war….the war which you did not prevent”.

This moment begins and ends the ballet Nijinsky, with everything in between representing flashbacks of the dancer’s personal and public life and all through the distorted lens of his schizophrenia.

So here’s the big challenge of the ballet.

Except for the audible chatter of the guests as the curtain rises, the dancers have to express their misery, ecstasy, anger and fear through their bodies and facial expressions, none more than the dancer who plays the title role.

If one dancer was going to make it work and work well, it was Kevin Jackson on the opening night in Sydney.

Jackson had something to prove.

At the curtain call, he was genuinely moved by the audience’s reaction and he paid tribute on stage to Neumeier, who had previously decided that Alexandre Riabko, a principal of the Hamburg Ballet, should dance on opening night in Melbourne rather than Jackson (whose image had been all over the promotional material for the ballet).

Jackson gave it his all in Sydney, proving his capabilities as an actor, his strengths as a dancer and his stamina – the dancer who plays the leading role in Nijinsky is seldom off the stage, so for him, it’s an exhausting evening.

I’m not sure if Jackson’s new short haircut was a way to minimise the probability of sweat running down his face, or whether the spiky hair style referred to the look of Nijinsky himself when, in 1916, he danced in the last ballet he choreographed, the folk story, Tyl Eulenspiegel.

Dancing as Romola, Nijinsky’s wife, Amber Scott, replaced the injured Amy Harris, on opening night.

Her Romola was a more fragile and vulnerable woman than Harris’s interpretation in Melbourne, but both were equally strong in the challenging role that demands an ability to morph from a protector, to a seductress, back to a protector and finally to a woman whose fate is to spend the rest of her days with a deeply disturbed man.

Neumeier’s interpretation of Romola, however, is kind.

In life, the Hungarian woman who was obsessed with Nijinksy the dancer was a more conniving and needy woman than the choreographer depicts.

Nijinsky is a dance theatre work, with spoken words, some mumbled, some shouted, and the choreography itself is not the most dominant element of the ballet.

Scattered with motifs (angular gestures, hands held flat as if they are pushing away the enemy, poses in which the dancers stand with their arms outstretched like a cross), Nijinsky is replete with fragments from the Ballets Russes repertoire and other less direct ballet references such as La Bayadere’s entrance of the Shades, the hand to the ear gesture of the Prelude of Les Sylphides and Nijinsky’s frenzied counting of the steps when he staged Le Sacre du Printemps.

Although Nijinsky was created on a classical ballet company – the Hamburg Ballet – the choreography has more than a few aspects of early 20th century modern dance, especially in the final scenes of dystopian chaos that mirror Nijinsky’s madness.

That makes sense, as Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps and L’Apres midi d’un faune ushered in the modern dance movement.

Neumeier has taken an unusual amount of control in the casting of his ballet in Australia, so for those who have the money and commitment to see more than one performance of Nijinsky, it might be interesting to see the performances of two young corps de ballet dancers who were handpicked for the title role by Neumeier – 21 year old Callum Linnane, and 24 year old Jake Mangakahia. The casting dates are on the Australian Ballet’s website.

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Ako Kondo and artists of the Australian Ballet, Nijinsky, photo © Kate Longley

Kevin Jackson, Nijinsky, Australian Ballet, photo © Wendell Teodorow

Chengwu Guo and Kevin Jackson, Nijinsky, Australian Ballet, photo © Wendell Teodorow

Kevin Jackson, Nijinsky, Australian Ballet, photo © Wendell Teodorow

Vaslav Nijinsky in Tyl Eulenspiegel, 1916, photo © Karl Struss

Kevin Jackson and Amber Scott, Nijinsky, Australian Ballet, photo © Wendell Teodorow