Divine dancing

A dancing god, a choreography giant, a world-class ballet company. Nijinsky is set to be a memorable affair.

By Ana Tique

The internationally acclaimed Hamburg Ballet was founded in 1973 by its still current artistic director, American dancer and choreographer John Neumeier. Gracing the world over with outstanding performances from its broad repertoire, the company includes well over one hundred of Neumeier’s original choreographies. His focus remains to create contemporary work with a close connection with classical ballet. The return of the Hamburg Ballet to Macau comes early next year. This time, it brings a correlation of a more personal nature: between the creator and his muse.

Rise and fall of a dance god

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, as the second son of a Polish dance couple. His dancing education started at home. At the very young age of eight, it was made official when he joined the St. Petersburg Imperial School of Dance. His talent wouldn’t go unnoticed for long, and he would end up graduating at the iconic Mariinsky Theatre and becoming a soloist at only 17 years old. His push into international stardom came under the teachings of Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes. What followed after was a short, yet intense career that set new standards both technically and expressively, leading the way towards modern dance. Controversial and compelling, Nijinsky redefined the role of the male dancer in classical ballet, adding athleticism and highlighting what traditionally had always been a supporting role. His style was marked by an incomparable devotion to the parts and a captivating lightness, magnetism and polarizing eroticism. His leading roles included numerous classics, from Giselle and Swan Lake to Sleeping Beauty. After touring with the newly created Ballets Russes, his interpretations in Petrushka, Le Spectre de la Rose, and more notoriously in Schéhérazade, brought him instant celebrity.

His career lasted for only a decade, cut short from a troubled life of personal misfortune and mental illness. Offstage, he maintained a hardly discreet relationship with Diaghilev, who was jealous of Nijinsky’s marriage to wealthy Hungarian actress Romola de Pulszky. Throughout his career, Nijinsky choreographed four controversial ballets: L’après-midi d’un Faune (1912); Jeux (1913); Le Sacre du Printemps (1913); and Till Eulenspiegel (1916). The public response to them was, however, not the best, due to their controversial and erotic nature. Nijinsky spent the last thirty years of his life between asylums and under the watchful eye of his wife. By 1916, in his interpretation of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, there were already visible signs of schizophrenia. Nijinsky’s last public performance took place in January 1919 at the Suvretta House, in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A ballet storyteller

John Neumeier discovered Nijinsky through a book in the public library of his native town in Milwaukee, USA, at just eleven years old. By then, John was already deep into tap dancing, acrobatics and musical movies. He went on to major in literature and dancing with Sybil Shearer’s innovative company in Chicago for two years. Dancing took him to Europe; where he studied ballet in Copenhagen and London. The iconic South African director John Cranko hired him to dance with the Stuttgart Ballet, which was his first job in Germany. After directing ballet in Frankfurt, Neumeier would finally move to the Hamburg Ballet, where he is artistic director and chief choreographer to this day. With more than 150 ballets under his belt, John Neumeier has taken the Hamburg Ballet to international recognition as one of the leading companies on the dance scene.

“A ballet can never be a documentary.” – John Neumeier

Dance magazine acclaimed Nijinsky as “the most ambitious project in the ballet world”. Nijinsky is, first and foremost, a powerful homage to one of Neumeier’s heroes, Vaslav Nijinsky, widely considered the most phenomenal ballet interpreter of all time. Premiered nineteen years ago, the Hamburg Ballet describes Nijinsky as a “choreographic approach” to a dance phenomenon that has been a part of Neumeier’s life since early on. Neumeier is a renowned expert in Nijinsky, and he describes the ballet as a “biography of the soul, a biography of feelings and sensations”, opposed to a biographical, narrative work or of the likes of a documentary.

The starting point for Nijinsky’s creation consists of three aspects of what made Nijinsky himself: the dancer, the choreographer and the human. The ballet in two acts begins in the St-Moritz hotel room where Nijinsky gave his last performance as a dancer, cascading flashbacks to the Ballets Russes years. It is an entrance that represents an omen, a moment of transition and a place of memory. Personal and private life intertwine with references to Diaghilev, Romola and allusions to his career. The second act takes the audience straight into the ravaged interior landscape of Nijinsky’s wounded psyche. John Neumeier designed the set and the costumes, and several dancers represent fragments of Nijinsky’s troubled persona. Two main works divide the musical basis of the ballet: Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem “Scheherazade”, and the 11th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich. Romantic Chopin and Schumann, and exotic Rimsky-Korsakov are some of the additional composers that frame the ballet. Nijinsky goes through flashes of the dancer’s life and roles, focusing on the path that led to his end.

Neumeier’s Nijinsky takes the stage on February 28th and March 3rd at the Macau Cultural Centre. Ultimately, it is a multifaceted and emotional journey to discovering a complex character. As John Neumeier himself puts it, “in the end, it’s important that it is a ballet, a work of art in itself, understandable, enjoyable, and moving – without having read a single word about Nijinsky.”