Every once in a while there comes a performance that is so involving, so breathtaking, so demanding and so rewarding on every imaginable level that critical commentary becomes almost superfluous.
I'm referring to the National Ballet's restaging of John Neumeier's full-length ballet Nijinsky, which they previously danced in March of 2013. Alas, I missed it on that occasion so Saturday was my first encounter. I was so entranced and captivated, in the most literal sense of the words, that I promptly bought another ticket for the closing show Sunday afternoon.
In the theatre world there is a whole long line of plays, famous and not-so-famous, about actors putting on plays. The parallel is certainly nowhere near as common in the dance world, and this is the first ballet I ever recall encountering which is about the subject of dance and dancers in any way.
Neumeier is famous for working a lot of levels of thought into his choreography. Sometimes, as in the other full-length Neumeier work in the National's repertoire (The Seagull, after Chekhov) the results can be difficult to grasp because the concepts are so cerebral.
Nijinsky is in another league altogether, a stunning example of dance drama where the drama is at least two-thirds below the surface. This is not a narrative ballet about the life of Vaclav Nijinsky. It's more of a gutsy emotional exploration of his personal relationships and his dance career, viewed through the wildly distorted lens of his rapidly collapsing sanity.
It's a key part of the work that there are a number of alternate Nijinskys appearing from time to time. Several dancers appear in turn as some of his most famous characters including the Gold Slave from Scheherazade, the Spirit from Le Spectre de la Rose, the Harlequin from Carnaval, and Petrushka from the eponymous ballet. There are also a couple of "shadows" who follow him in some sequences, either imitating his movements or anticipating them.
Around him appear the key figures in his life: his parents, his elder brother (who descended into madness first), his sister Bronislava, his wife Romola, and Serge Diaghilev -- the dominating and domineering impresario/mentor/lover/Svengali figure of Nijinsky's life and career.
Actually, Nijinsky is almost two separate ballets. The first act opens on a faithful recreation of the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland. It was in this room that Nijinsky danced his final public performance on January 19, 1919. A pianist on stage actually begins to play before the audience are seated, and accompanies the first two segments with a Chopin prelude and Schumann's Carnival Jest in Vienna. Almost as soon as he begins to dance, the ballroom dissolves as we enter Nijinsky's mind and memories. The bulk of the first act, swirling and colourful, explores the outward side (or perhaps it's the first stage) of his mental disintegration in the context of his famous roles. In it we see the key moments -- his dancing with Karsavina, his first sight of Diaghilev (his erstwhile protector and patron) walking with the young and beautiful Leonid Massine on his arm, and his first encounter with Romola on the ship taking him to South America for a tour -- without Diaghilev. The music, apart from one movement of a viola sonata by Shostakovich, consists of three of the four movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The choreography follows the emotional arc of this lushly romantic music faithfully, with the massive climax of the final movement underlining the moment when Nijinsky snaps. It's such a heart-rending scene that I doubt I will ever hear Scheherazade again in quite the same way.
Act II is all inward, the final stages of Nijinsky's descent, a monochromatic nightmare of endlessly repeated movements. Here Nijinsky comes face to face with the unfaithfulness of Romola. In what seems a choreographic vision of a delirium, he repeatedly flings aside his "shadow", a duet of extreme vehemence and violent motion. The "shadow" in this scene is danced by the same dancer who performed the role of his brother. The "outward" ballet in this act is the premiere of The Rite of Spring, an infamous cause of scandal in Paris which Nijinsky choreographed. The corps de ballet in this scene appears not to be involved in the performance, but the dance-of-death of the Sacrificial Victim is unmistakable. Tellingly, she is portrayed by his sister. At the end, back in the ballroom, Nijinsky completes his descent into madness with the incredibly contorted and brutal dance of War, the last piece he ever performed.
To clarify, the choreography is all Neumeier, although he makes liberal use of authentic positions which are known from photographs and from the notes and reviews of Nijinsky's work.
All of this second act is set to a complete performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905". Overtly about the St. Petersburg Massacre of that year, the symphony is at least as likely to be about the Stalinist terror. It contains long stretches of nearly immobile, icy cold music which absolutely suit the nightmare visions on stage. The final eruption of energy is matched exactly by the lengthy coda of the final movement, which is entitled The Tocsin ("alarm bell"). Outwardly the most un-dance-like music you could imagine, but such a perfect fit to Neumeier's astonishing vision that no other music is imaginable in its place. This massive score, by the way, was played with immense passion and power by the National Ballet Orchestra, the only full-time ballet orchestra in Canada, and a top-notch ensemble by any standard. Kudos to guest conductor Ormsby Wilkins for leading the orchestra throughout this powerful programme of music.
Apart from the hotel set, the ballet is performed in a box of black curtains, but with the striking addition of a bright white floor. This was an inspired touch, as it not only highlighted the power of the choreography but also avoided the usual difficulty of the box of blacks in which the curtains combined with a dark floor swallow all the light you can throw on them, still leaving the stage looking dark and dim.
Now, the performers. Since I took in the piece twice, I got to see two different performers in almost all the key roles. Sonia Rodriguez and Xiao Nan Yu alternated as Romola, and both were magnificent in a very difficult role. Chelsy Meiss and Jenna Savella alternated as Bronislava, Nijinsky's sister, and herself a fine dancer. Both also appeared to great effect as the young woman in Jeux and as the Chosen Virgin in The Rite of Spring. Savella generated an extra edge of sheer madness in that sequence which was especially gripping. Piotr Stanczyk and Evan McKie were both strong as Diaghilev, with McKie finding just that little bit more of the man icily absorbed in his own wonderful self. Elena Lobsanova and Sonia Rodriguez were both excellent in multiple appearances as Tamara Karsavina, the leading dancer who partnered Nijinsky in many of his most famous roles.
Among the alternate Nijinskys, there were some true standout performances. Keiichi Hirano, always known for his high leaps, did spectacular work as both the Gold Slave and the Faun. Naoya Ebe was especially good as the Spirit of the Rose. And Jonathan Renna, in both performances, was outstanding as Petruschka, exactly capturing the mechanically entrapped feeling of the fairground puppet dancing on strings.
At the Saturday matinee, Nijinsky himself (the main Nijinsky, that is) was danced by Skylar Campbell. On Sunday the role was given to Guillaume Cote. Both did excellent work. Both these dancers captured the lightning-fast changes of mood and emotion required, and both reached the requisite peak of frantic activity in the final War sequence. I think Cote has an advantage simply by virtue of being older and having more years of life experience to draw on when creating such a vastly complex character. But in the end, I found Campbell less convincing for a rather unfair reason. He just looks too young -- far younger than he actually is. His boyish face and head of wildly curling hair make him look almost like a pre-teenager, and his frustration at the snapping point in Act I had a look of schoolboy petulance about it. Perhaps the only solution to this would be a carefully fitted wig and heavier makeup to age him. And it's unfortunate because he undoubtedly gave his all and deserved every bit of applause he got.
Speaking of giving it your all: that is what I sensed all the dancers were doing on Sunday, that being the final performance of the run. For whatever reason, the whole show seemed to fly at a higher energy level, and veer closer to the edge at times, almost like a flirtation with the real fate of Nijinsky. Certainly very rewarding for the audience! But that is true of the entire work. Rest assured, here is one full-length modern ballet which survives repetition extremely well, an artwork of stature that deserves to be revived regularly.