Vaslav Nijinsky’s madness is as much a part of his legend as his enormous leap. Studying Baron de Meyer’s photographs to try to divine the great dancer’s charisma, we also, I think, look for signs of the insanity that ended his career—not only as a performer but as an innovative choreographer (who knows what he might have come up with after the age of 30?). It’s no surprise that John Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, has chosen the artist’s madness as a framework for his 2000 Nijinsky—not just chosen it but fetishized and glamorized it, as if that mental imbalance were somehow responsible for the dancer’s greatness. Twisted, flailing limbs and crashing falls attest to torment, but Neumeier avoids the sordidness of asylum life—so gruelingly detailed in Peter Ostwald’s 1991 Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap Into Madness—by beginning with Nijinsky’s “last dance,” in 1919, seen by an invited audience in the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz (meticulously invoked in Neumeier’s set). From there the choreographer flashes back through Nijinsky’s career via the lens of a mind unhinged.
This is not your average well-regulated dream ballet. Characters and scenes from Nijinsky’s past, along with dancers embodying his famous roles (and invoking appropriate choreography), swirl past, intersect, and mingle strangely: Petrouchka, fellow students at the Imperial Ballet School, odalisques from Scheherazade, his family, et al. Would you understand why Nijinsky’s father and his briefly seen doctor are played by the same dancer? (Clue: It has to do with extramarital affairs.) Vaslav’s lover, impresario Serge Diaghilev, briefly replaces characters in images from ballets.
The panoply is stunningly theatrical at times. During the travails of Vaslav’s equally disturbed brother (spectacularly performed by Yukichi Hattori), the procession of the Shades from Petipa’s La Bayadère unwinds behind him, speeding up into derangement. But Nijinsky also becomes muddy choreographically and conceptually, and gratuitously sensational. Hunky men, who stand for both the celebrants in Le Sacre du Printemps and World War I soldiers, exert themselves to Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 (The Year 1905) wearing open uniform jackets over bare chests and tiny gray trunks with button flies. (Nijinsky screaming counts at the dancers becomes the commanding officer whipping on his troops, but how much did revolution and a world war contribute to his mental state?) Even though Neumeier clearly knows Nijinsky’s history, his ballet has the aura of MTV—phantasmagorical, eye-catching images dissolving into one another, swimming in and out of focus.
Several long duets intermittently slow the carnival. The hero’s first shipboard dance with his bride to be, Romola (Anna Polikarpova), becomes a trio with his sexually aroused persona from L’Après-Midi d’un Faune. In an erotic articulation of the master/protégé-cum-slave relationship of Diaghilev and Nijinsky, the impresario (Ivan Urban) lashes the soles of his lover’s feet with his hair to goad him as he crawls along. In the end, when Nijinsky sits glowering and breathing hard in his chair in Switzerland, I don’t feel present at the culmination of a tragedy in the world of art; I think, “He had one hell of a life.”
Graeme Murphy, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, is a lusty choreographer with an eye for what can be done with beautiful dancers to make audiences sigh in pleasure and clap their palms raw. Subtlety is not his strong suit. You’re more likely to find his Ellipse—seven dances, set to highly eclectic selections of Matthew Hindson’s music—studiously lovely, athletically romantic, and bawdily comic.
The set is a star. The performing space is shaped by a gigantic silvery ellipse by Gerard Manion that can be used as a perch. A swinging ovoid red lantern punctuates Damien Cooper’s lighting. In the striking beginning, Wakako Asano, her stunning back to us, twists on the floor in muscular discomfort. Katherine Griffiths watches, then joins her in some serene and attractive dancing with a bit of strange partnering (the choke-hold arabesque, say). When Simon Turner enters, he steals their steps, dances virtuosically, abuses them, and more or less leaves them as he found them.
The men in Ellipse are vibrant, and the women match them in power. It’s surprising then that the latter are so often flung about, bounced into splits, and dragged. As a come-on, a woman may fall and hoist her legs in the air, the better to be hauled (either off stage, or to her feet for more affectionate and decorative mauling). To “Chrissietina’s Magic Fantasy” (for two violins), tiny Tracey Carrodus is seldom allowed to stand on her own feet, although in the final “Speed,” she gets to run along the spines of everyone else. And in a fine duet in “Westaway”(for a second, a fierce Aussie echo of Sleeping Beauty‘s Bluebirds), Chylie Cooper stands on Jason Wilcock’s back. Andrea Briody really triumphs in a silent-film parody (with at least one joke too vulgar for Hollywood), danced to part of Hindson’s “Homage to Metallica.” Tying herself up and lying on the tracks for a human train to run over, she’s saved by the two cowboy galoots who’ve rowdily toyed with her, and then she runs off with their money. Murphy clearly has his fingers on the public’s pulse. He knows what speeds it up and delivers that with some skill via his superb messengers.