Review: National Ballet’s Nijinsky a powerhouse mix of emotional dance and music

A scene from Nijinsky as performed by the National Ballet of Canada.

Like Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, Vaslav Nijinsky enjoyed a few brief, blazing years of glory and glamour before vanishing, leaving grieving fans to wail and beat their chests. Nijinsky wasn’t physically felled by early self-destruction, but gnawing mental illness eventually destroyed his creativity, leaving him an empty husk. The man who danced like a god never performed in public again after 1919 and spent the last 30 years of his life in and out of institutions, barely speaking.

It’s impossible to parse whether Nijinsky’s madness was the price of his genius or a toxic by-product. It’s to John Neumeier’s credit that his extraordinary ballet Nijinsky doesn’t try to explain or excuse. The choreography focuses on the how and the who of Nijinsky’s torment, not the why, giving the work an elemental, visceral power.

It’s been 18 years since Neumeier introduced the work at the Hamburg Ballett, and five since the premiere of the National Ballet of Canada’s acclaimed production. Anyone who has been patiently waiting for Nijinsky to come to Ottawa has been rewarded with an evening of wildly beautiful, emotional dance and music, a ballet so densely layered and technically virtuosic that you immediately want to see it again.

Neumeier, one of the world’s top Nijinsky scholars, presents the dancer’s life as flashbacks, in which real events and people–Nijinsky’s gifted sister Bronislava, his stalker-turned-wife Romola, his impresario and lover Diaghilev — blur with the legendary roles and characters he created and with the nightmarish delusions of his diseased mind.

The ballet opens in the recreated ballroom of the Suvretta House in St. Moritz, where Nijinsky suffered a breakdown during what was to be his last public appearance. In Act 1, pictures from that final tense, grotesque performance alternate with extravagant, hedonistic scenes from his artistic nadir with Les Ballets Russes. We’re introduced to a preening, Svengali-like Diaghilev; Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava and his mentally ill brother Stanislav; Nijinsky’s rival Massine; and his wife Romola, first glimpsed as a mysterious woman in a crimson velvet gown.

Act II takes place in a mental asylum, where a broken Nijinsky sees visions of his wife’s infidelity, his brother’s death, and apocalyptic images from the First World War as a commingled symphony of destruction. The ballet ends back at Suvretta House, where all the frayed, golden threads of Nijinsky’s life finally tangle and break.

Neumeier’s choreography dazzles and beguiles with heart-stopping lifts and drops (a pas de deux for Diaghilev and Nijinsky is especially daring) and marvellous, complex visual counterpoint (the grandiose, tour-de-force Act I finale for the corps and all the soloists in which each dancer is matched to a different line and rhythm pattern in the Scheherazade score — like watching a huge Bach triple fugue come to life). There are quotes from all of Nijinsky’s greatest hits: his proud, angular Faun; lighter-than-air Spectre de la Rose; sad sack, rubbery Petrouchka; and especially his Golden Slave, the embodiment of carnal desire. Neumeier’s Instagrammable, Poiret-inspired costumes and gorgeous, inventive sets — the Art Nouveau opulence of the Suvretta House shifting to the stark, bare asylum scene, dominated by two enormous, glowing hoops suspended over the stage — complete the spell.

I caught the second night cast. Following Guillaume Côté in the title role is no small task, but Skylar Campbell made Nijinsky completely his own. Campbell brings youthful insolence and pure, animal grace to the role — with his Pan-like curls and pointed, feline features, he even looks like a Faun. His sheer physical commitment to portraying Nijinsky’s breakdown was riveting to watch — the disintegration of pristine, heaven-sent technique into desperate flailing was sadder than any death scene could have been.

Svetlana Lunkina was a touching Romola, her expressive face conveying star-struck fragility and bewilderment. Her dancing is impeccable, but I would have liked to have seen more frustration and rage come through in some of her later scenes. Even while she’s watching her husband collapse in front of her, everything was always a little too tidy and controlled.

Ben Rudisin was a haughty, vaguely menacing Diaghilev and showcased impressive strength touched with sensuality in his partnering with Campbell. Among the Nijinsky characters, Kota Sato absolutely stole the show (and more than a few hearts) as both the Golden Slave and the Faun, dancing with dazzling athleticism and almost scandalous sensuality, all bedroom eyes and supple hips. Jonnathan Renna’s Act II Petrouchka was so heartbreaking and disturbing it was nearly unbearable to watch: a wretched, terrified figure running around uncomprehendingly, the personification of Nijinsky’s inner distress and helplessness.

The other great star of this production is the music. I’m usually not a fan of mish-mash classical scores, but Neumeier elevates the technique by having excellent, unconventional tastes. In Act I, Scheherazade provides the lush, orientalist backdrop to Nijinsky’s Ballets Russes recollections, while the slow movement from Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata is used for the dancer’s strange uneasy with Romola and Diaghilev. The hour-long second act is accompanied exclusively by Shostakovich’s martial, metal Symphony No. 11 (Year 1905).

Angela Rudden, principal violist of the NCB orchestra, had serious intonation issues throughout the viola sonata, and I found the interpretation flaccid. I couldn’t help but think what NACO’s superb Jethro Marks would have done with the piece, but such is the nature of these artistic partnerships. The orchestra’s Scheherazade was luxurious and rich, with lovely, shimmering solos from Noémi Racine Gaudreault, who was filling in as Concertmaster.  

But good lord, that Shostakovich. NACO slayed it, under NCB conductor David Briskin. This was an unabashedly aggressive, fearsome, muscular interpretation, with pitch-dark strings and enormous volleys from brass and percussion, punctuated with moments of bleak, nervous peace (like Anna Peterson’s chilled-to-the-bone English horn solo). It was so good that for once I found it hard to concentrate on what was happening on stage. Playing in the pit didn’t do it justice; I hope NACO considers programming it during their proper season.

NIjinsky’s last performance is this (Saturday) evening at Southam Hall.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.