The madness of a faun: The tragedy of Vaslav Nijinsky captured by National Ballet of Canada’s Guillaume Côté

Guillaume Côté is Nijinsky.

Where is the dividing line between genius and madness?

In the case of the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, the line completely collapses.

In the years before the First World War, Nijinsky was world famous. And the company where he danced and choreographed, the Ballet Russes, assembled by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev is considered today one of the most influential, if not the most important, of the 20th century. This is the company that staged The Rite of Spring in 1913, with music by Igor Stravinsky, now seen as the composition that set the course for 20th century music.

Ironically, or perhaps not, The Rite of Spring, which was choreographed by Nijinsky, was not well-received at its premiere. Fights broke out in the audience. Another of his works L’après-midi d’un faune debuted in 1912 and sparked controversy because of its sexually suggestive nature.

Putting the story of a larger than life figure into a ballet takes some doing. Maybe it could only have been done by a legendary choreographer, in this case the American John Neumeier.

For the man who portrays Nijinsky in the ballet being staged by the National Ballet of Canada at the National Arts Centre this week, the work is much more that just “a recap of Nijinsky’s career. This is very much a portrait of this human being, of this … breakthrough artist.

“What is interesting about him: he had 10 years to train and then 10 years as the world’s biggest dance star. In those years dance was huge. He was an international star,” says Guillaume Côté.

And then he wasn’t.

“He took 40 years to die. He vanished after those 10 years of fame because Diaghilev pushed him out of the company after he married the Hungarian aristocrat and dance fanatic Romola de Pulszky.

After he was dismissed from the Ballet Russes, Nijinsky tried to continue dancing but within a decade he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized.

Neumeier’s ballet begins with, what Côté says, is the last performance Nijinsky gave. It was at a hotel in Switzerland.

“Very few people saw this show,” Côté says.

Vaslav Nijinsky.

One French critic attended, Côté says, and that’s how we know what happened. In the performance, Côté says, Nijinsky, wearing a huge kimono-like outfit, told the small audience that performance was his wedding with God. Then he is said to have started dancing in ways that were very staccato and frenetic. Finally, after wrapping himself in more fabric, this time red and black, he claimed that he was the married to God.

“This was supposed to be his big comeback but nobody really cared.”

Neumeier’s ballet then proceeds to go back and forth, between reality and his life story.

“Even if you aren’t a huge ballet fanatic you’ll recognize a lot of the iconic ballets he did such as Afternoon of a Faun and Scheherazade.”

The show also touches on his homosexual relationship with Diaghilev. And it examines the impact the First World War had on him. It explores mental illness too, Côté says, issues that are all present today.

“It’s all about these big things, but also it is about a person. He suffers though his insanity.”

The second act, Côté says, is really Romola’s act.

“You feel for her. What a life is it, to take care of someone who is so ill. … When she married him he was a shining star. She never signed up for that life.”

Côté says stepping into the role of Nijinsky was very difficult at the beginning.

“Everyone knows he was the God of Dance. (But) I found a way to portray him honestly. … The first time we did it I researched it heavily.”

That was in 2013 with the Hamburg Ballet, Neumeier’s company.

“At the time he hadn’t let anyone else dance that role. And only two people in his company had done it. I was first ‘outsider’ he allowed to tackle it.”

It was a hard audition process, Côté says,  because Neumeier was very demanding.

“John gives you a lot of freedom, but if he doesn’t like the freedom (you choose) he just takes you out. He casts you for your creativity.

Côté has great respect for Neumeier.

“He’s one of the last huge geniuses of ballet left. He has this one thing that a lot of young choreographers don’t have, myself included, which is the craft of story telling. He is from the era when when theatre was used as a means of telling a story and ballet was inserted into that story.

“He has taken that and made it more seamless.”

Côté says a lot of contemporary choreography is so abstract that “people have no idea what is going on but we all pretend we do.

“I’m constantly battling that myself as a choreographer. I think we all like the idea of story. … If you are going to make a two hour ballet you can’t sustain it with no drive, no storyline. John is a master of that. You’ll see it in Nijinsky.

“It’s not told to you in an old-fashioned way. It’s all danced but it’s still very theatrical.”

Côté is from the Lac Saint-Jean region of Quebec.

“My family aren’t ballet-goers in any sense. When they come and see shows, they say sometimes that they don’t know what’s going on.”

But they got Nijinsky, he says.

“They didn’t know the history, but they know something special has happened. That speaks to the genius of John and the genius of Nijinsky.”

Did Nijinsky change ballet? Not so much, Côté says.

“Diaghilev changed ballet. He put the talent together. Nijinsky has massive reputation as a dancer, but not as a choreographer. His choreography has vanished in part because wasn’t all that great. He was known for jumping around and doing the craziest virtuoso stuff.”

Côté, too, is a dancer and a choreographer. Last season, his piece Dark Angels was part of the Encount3rs series of new works at the National Arts Centre.

“I feel it informs my role to be both. I understand the struggles for sure. Choreography is this unattainably difficult skill. You are vulnerable. It can make you almost crazy. As an interpreter you are hiding behind a persona. You aren’t totally vulnerable.”

National Ballet of Canada
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 25-27 at 8 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.