You’ve touched his perfect body with your mind." That’s the subtext of "Nijinsky," the full-length ballet by John Neumeier that formed the whole of Hamburg Ballet’s program last week. They danced as guests of the San Francisco Ballet (as Program 2 of the SFB season) and had a triumphant reception: full houses, standing ovations. I found myself one of the few who were not standing and cheering, for though I’d been impressed by the superb technique and style of the dancers and by Neumeier’s brilliant use of the illusionistic resources of the Opera House stage, I found the spectacle unmoving and phony, or to use Nabokov’s famous word, "poshlust": "falsely important, falsely beautiful, falsely clever, falsely attractive."
It’s tempting to make a ballet about Nijinsky. What would it be like to be him, "the god of the dance?" Poets said he could stop in mid-air and just hang there. His brief, meteoric career flamed out into madness within a decade. His story is the best stuff the tabloids have ever had. Was he the boyfriend of the Archduke before he became the star dancer/lover of Serge Diaghilev and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes? Did the star-struck would-be dancer Romola, who bought her way into the back row of the Ballets Russes corps and persuaded Nijinsky to marry her, realize that Diaghilev would fire Nijinsky and deep-six his sensational choreography for "The Rite of Spring" (which had caused the audience to riot and created the most hotly discussed opening night of any ballet in the entire history of the art)? When Diaghilev said, "I cannot risk the future of our theater on your experiments," was he just trying to cut him off, or did he mean that he’d never really believed Nijinsky was a good (much less great) choreographer? From 1919-46, Nijinsky was treated in mental institutions, and later died in England in 1950.
The materials are the hottest tabloid stuff. And they’re archetypal: every generation, it happens again. When Balanchine’s muse Suzanne Farrell would not sleep with him but married a chorus boy, he fired her; she was out of a job until offered work by Maurice Bejart - who soon thereafter (1971) made a ballet about Nijinsky ("Clown of God") starring her as the Girl in Pink. When Elizabeth Loscavio, who was Helgi Tomasson’s muse here at SF Ballet, suddenly left in 1998 to join Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet, within a couple of years "Nijinsky" (2000) appeared. Coincidences? The buzz guarantees that the audience will come and will be so ready to free-associate that if the spectacle is gorgeous and looks expensive, they’ll call it culture and (even if they slept through it, as my spy reports happened around Row T in the Opera House last Friday night) stand and cheer for 10 minutes, and feel tremendously edified and thrilled to have been a part of it.
Neumeier’s premise is this: "On Jan. 19, 1919, Nijinsky danced publicly for the last time at Hotel Suvretta-House, St. Moritz, in a mad ’Dance with God.’" (Company notes.) The ballet is grounded in this scene (it was what we’d call a fundraiser) even as his mind breaks down and images of characters he’s portrayed, and of women and men he’s danced with, begin to people the stage and crowd out the aristocratic audience - who despise the new work, but begin to be seduced into staying when he desperately troops out some products from his Pretty Line.
For two acts we revisit his famous dances - "Afternoon of a Faun," "Spectre of the Rose," "Petrouschka," and "Rite of Spring" - with many-layered, weirdly distorted famous images, famous steps, famous costumes, danced to the wrong music. Then we’re delivered back into agonized dances illustrating his bipolar dependence on a) his wife, and b) his art, his career, Diaghilev. All this is done with superb technique and stunning clarity by a company of thrilling dancers who are devoted to their director and are killing themselves to put this ballet across.
Clearly, many in the audience found this an acceptable mash-up - especially since a) it was rich in gaudy steps, virtuosity that approached Nijinsky’s own, b) Neumeier’s costumes and sets, which he designs himself, are stunningly pictorial, and c) many of the lighting effects made Nijinsky’s alienation so striking. Toward the end of the first act, everyone onstage suddenly faded into a sepia-toned wash as Nijinsky remained in "normal" light. That’s to cite one instance of many in which the effect was perfect. All the dancers performed with precision, attack, style, as did pianist Richard Hoynes and the Hamburg Ballet’s own orchestra (conductor Simon Hewett), who came with them, playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Scheherazade" and two works by Shostakovich. I cannot fault their performances - except that when it came time for everyone to laugh at Nijinsky, their scorn was way overacted.
The role of Nijinsky was divided up among many dancers: Alexandre Riabko, Alexandr Trusch, Kiran West, Thiago Bordin, Edvin Revazov, Lloyd Riggins. Karzsavina was danced by Silvia Azzoni, Bronislava Nijinsky by Patricia Tichy, Diaghilev by Carsten Jung. A fantastically hunky, athletic male dancer in white hot pants danced a version of the Chosen Maiden from "Rite of Spring" to tremendous effect. I could not identify him from the program notes.
A propos the "Rite of Spring": this is the 100th anniversary of its first presentation. There will be at least two new versions of the ballet performed later this year, Yuri Possokhov’s for SFB, and Mark Morris’ at Cal Performances.