Australian Ballet: Nijinsky

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Published: 12th September, 2016

Opening night at the ballet has its traditions: champagne, haute couture, and high aesthetics. However exquisite and beautiful last Wednesday night proved to be, it was certainly not traditional.

Great praise goes to Australian Ballet Artistic Director David McAllister for ushering in such a bold and ambitious work to Australia. Nijinsky is a daring production showcasing highly stylized modern choreography and demanding roles of great emotional complexity.

Nijinsky is a full-length ballet chronicling the life of one of the world’s most famous dancers and choreographers, Vaslav Nijinsky, a Polish-born, Russian-trained ballet dancer who rose to fame with the Ballets Russes under the direction of impresario Serge Diaghilev. Nijinsky’s life was shrouded with turmoil and emotional difficulty. He showed signs of mental illness from a young age and struggled with schizophrenia, eventually spending most of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals. But the dancer led a fascinating life and the ballet Nijinsky successfully brings together the many facets of this complicated man.

The opening scene sets a tone for the entire evening: unexpected and nontraditional. The house lights are up, grand piano on stage, dancers enter talking and laughing; we are an audience within an audience. After a scream from offstage Nijinsky enters, danced by Hamburg Ballet Principal Artist Alexandre Riabko. He dances his final public performance in a hotel ballroom in St. Moritz. The solo outlines a classical dance with beautiful lines and virtuoso choreography, underscored by emotionally wrought angular moves. Riabko dances with grace and obvious sarcasm in parody of Nijinsky’s former self, the very definition of narcissism and inner torment.

American choreographer John Neumeier is the Artistic Director of the Hamburg Ballet and originally produced Nijinsky in Germany in 2000. It is a masterfully crafted ballet recreating flashbacks and influential people throughout Nijinsky’s life. At times the production feels fragmented, like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, difficult to understand, but the overall effect is profound. Dazzling costumes fill a grand set, with the music led by recurring themes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Neumeier conceptualised all artistic components of the production: lighting design, set, costumes and music arrangement and his scope of Nijinsky’s life is truly epic.

The opening night cast was stellar with Riabko exposing Nijinsky’s heart and soul on the stage. His execution of choreography was flawless and his emotional intensity complete. He is truly a world-class artist with all the required bravado and stamina to dance such a demanding role.  Adam Bull was a well cast counterbalance dancing the role of Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s mentor and lover. Bull was the embodiment of nurturing care for the fragile young artist, supporting him with strength and dependability.   The two dancers have such opposing body types and movement qualities: Riabko short, muscular, supple and seamless opposite Bull’s tall frame and upright, unyielding character.

Amy Harris danced the role of Nijinsky’s wife Romola. Harris makes an exquisite entrance in the opening scene dressed in a gorgeous blood-red velvet dress, comforting and protective towards her mentally declining husband. She dances throughout the production with aplomb but reaches her true apex in one of the final scenes of the ballet. She begins a solo dance, which evolves into a duet with Riabko. The two are melded together as their bodies intertwine and unfold with heart-felt emotion. Riabko has several standout moments including a solo and duet leading up to the death of his brother Stanislav Nijinsky, danced by Francois-Eloi Lavignac. Both dancers were able to render the physical embodiment of familial love and irresolution.

Other male dancers in the company represent roles that Nijinsky danced throughout his career. Cristiano Martino shows great diversity dancing the Faun in constrained profile steps representing Nijinsky’s organic artistry and the role of the Golden Slave embodying outward sensuality and sexual ambiguity with broad virtuosic jumps. Iconic Nijinsky character Petrouchka is introduced in the decidedly darker second half. Danced with conviction and self-restraint by Brett Simon, Petrouchka symbolizes Nijinsky’s rage over the death of his brother and the conflicts of World War 1. The ballet closes with an ultimately gut-wrenching solo representing Nijinsky’s final ode to life.

Nijinsky washes over you with a compilation of beauty, angst, color, darkness, madness and passion. Watching Nijinsky embrace himself over and over again arouses pity for the tortured soul who revolutionised ballet. The marvel of Nijinsky is the production’s ability to encapsulate a broad spectrum of life experiences and explore the human psyche of one of the dance world’s most gifted artists.

The picture is of Cristiano Martino as the Faun. Photo: Jeff Busby