Neumeier’s Nijinsky: A reflection of both the dancer and the choreographer

The ballet Nijinsky isn’t a chronological narrative of the dancer’s life, but depicts elements of his life as he remembers them on the brink of his descent into schizophrenia.

For the choreographer, John Neumeier, this structure of recall, confusion and moments of clarity was a perfect platform; no one is more immersed in Nijinsky’s life than Neumeier and no aspect of the dancer’s life was too obscure or esoteric to investigate

Nijinsky’s memories encompass his student years in St Petersburg, his fame as a dancer and choreographer, and his personal relationships with his wife, Romola, his brother, Stanislav, his sister, Bronislava, his parents and his lover, Sergei Diaghilev.

It’s said that every novel, especially a first novel, has elements of the author’s life and I think that’s the case with Neumeier as well, although the ballet Nijinsky was hardly his first tribute to the dancer.

Neumeier staged the first Nijinsky Gala in 1975 soon after becoming the artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet. (By 2010 he had staged 34 more Nijinsky Galas.)

He choreographed Petrushka-Variations and Vaslav in the ‚Äė70s, his full-length Nijinsky in 2000 and Le Pavillon d’Armide in 2009.

Neumeier’s childhood and student days in Wisconsin are reflected in the ballet Nijinsky in a number of ways. When he was only four, his mother introduced him to movie musicals often starring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

During his student days at Marquette University he staged dances for the musicals, Annie Get Your Gun and Peter Pan.

Musicals were his first inspiration to dance and they have remained in his memory forever. He’s choreographed West Side Story, based on the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, and a production of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town.

Within his classical works for the Hamburg Ballet, Neumeier sometimes inserts moments inspired by musicals, such as his choreography for the Rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In Nijinsky, there‚Äôs a moment when seven shadowy Diaghilevs line up in black suits and top hats in a scene reminiscent of Astaire‚Äôs chorus line in Puttin’ on the Ritz.

And there’s another musical moment in Nijinsky when Romola dances a few steps of the Charleston, the American dance craze of the 1920s. The Charleston was at its peak of popularity when Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava, choreographed Les Biches in 1924 in which the women wear flapper like costumes of fringed headdresses and the lead character, The Hostess, prances across the stage, a cigarette holder in her hand and ropes of pearls looped around her neck.

When he was 20 Neumeier studied in Chicago with Sybil Shearer, a contemporary dancer who had trained with modern dance luminaries Doris Humphrey Martha Graham and Hanya Holm.

Shearer shared an interest in Nijinsky, telling Neumeier of the impact Nijinsky had as a choreographer of the early 20th century.

Neumeier’s background in the contemporary dance world is obvious in his ballet Nijinsky, not only in the works of Vaslav Nijinsky himself but also in the movement of Bronislava Nijinsky whose 1923 ballet, Les Noces, is referenced a number of times.

Neumeier left the United States to train at the Royal Ballet School in London, and later with Vera Volkova who had studied in Russia with the teacher Agrippina Vaganova. The Vaganova school of technique is taught at the elite ballet school in St Petersburg, the Vaganova Ballet Academy,

Volkova taught the Vaganova method herself in London and Denmark and that knowledge was passed on to Neumeier who added his Vaganova moments to Nijinsky.

During his flashbacks to his youth, the character Nijinsky remembers his student days at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, with his fellow students dressed in their white uniforms.

Graduates of Vaganova include Michel Fokine, whose works for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Chopiniana and Petrouchka are depicted in Nijinsky.

The colour white is dominant in Nijinsky’s designs – the white ballroom where the ballet begins, the students’ costumes, Vaslav‚Äôs own first appearance wrapped in white, Romola‚Äôs white dress on board the ship taking her and Diaghilev‚Äôs Ballets Russes‚Äô dancers to South America, the white tennis costumes of the dancers in the ballet Jeux and Vaslav’s T-shirt.

The Hamburg Ballet repertoire is mainly devoted to Neumeier’s own works but the company has also danced three ballets by Jerome Robbins and 11 by George Balanchine.

As Nijinsky the ballet opens with a pianist playing on stage, I wonder if Neumeier thought of the pianist-on-stage moments in Robbins’ The Concert and Balanchine’s Duo Concertant.

This month, the Australian Ballet began its three-city season of Nijinsky, an important event for the company as it marks the first time a Neumeier ballet has entered the company’s repertoire.

After Melbourne, the company will take the ballet to Adelaide in October and to Sydney in November. I saw the ballet in Melbourne on the opening night, 7 September and reviewed it for the UK based website, DanceTabs.

My review of Nijinsky for DanceTabs

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Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo, and Christopher Rodgers Wilson, Nijinsky, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby

Helene Bouchet, Alexandre Riabko and Carsten Jung, Nijinsky, Hamburg Ballet, photo © Erik Tomasson

Alexandre Riabko, Nijinsky, Hamburg Ballet, photo © Erik Tomasson

Francesco Gabriele Frola and Svetlana Lunkina, Nijinsky, National Ballet of Canada, photo © Aleksandar Antonijevic

Guillaume C√īt√© and Jir√≠ Jelinek (as Diaghilev), Nijinsky, National Ballet of Canada photo ¬© Aleksandar Antonijevic

Kevin Jackson, Amy Harris and Adam Bull, Nijinsky, Australian Ballet, photo © Jeff Busby