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How could I have been so wrong? Last week the National Ballet of Canada danced Nijinsky: a Ballet by John Neumeier so musically and with such conviction, they completely reversed the impression I got when Neumeier's own Hamburg Ballet danced the same ballet here five years ago. Same steps, same music, same big idea: to show in two acts the disintegration of the mind of the greatest dance genius of the 20th century.
The thing that's clearest is that Neumeier's idea to stage Nijinsky's thoughts, emotions, hallucinations in the form of dancers surrounding him is brilliant, and it's apt: Nijinsky's first great role was in Les Sylphides, as a poet surrounded by his ideas, dancing to Chopin in the moonlight.
Neumeier has staged his breakdown as a swarm of ideas, emotions, recollections surrounding and attacking him as he gives his last public performance, at a fund-raiser staged in a hotel in Switzerland where they've taken refuge from the World War, there with his anxious wife Romola (Xiao Nan Yu, excellent in the role) in an attempt to get wealthy donors to help the great artist to make a comeback. Diaghliev had fired him for leaving his bed and marrying Romola, they need new patrons, and Nijinsky has no skill in that line. The situation is fraught from the get-go, with donors who must be coaxed towards the Big Ask seated around the edge of a ballroom. The first woman to enter stares in horror at the second, who is wearing exactly the same dress. The wife stages a diversion and avoids fiasco by making the pianist hired for the occasion change the music, and persuading an elderly gentleman to waltz a bit to this easier-listening music. The ice is broken, but tension ebbs and flows as others arrive, make small talk, then mounts again after the grand artiste Nijinsky, "the god of the dance" (Guillaume Côté), makes his entrance draped like Sarah Bernhardt. But then he hesitates: he takes too long; the crowd wonders if he's lost his touch, when he suddenly disrobes and begins a harsh, Constructivist solo that abandons the style of his greatest hits. Moreover, he seems to have renounced the kind of erotic fantasies his earlier dances had stimulated as the Golden Slave or the Spectre of the Rose, which had made him the most desired man in Europe. It's like Marilyn Monroe wanting to be a serious actress, or Bob Dylan wanting to sing his new songs.
He's "dying out there," as comedians say when nobody laughs. But as he loses it, we see swarms of dancers from his greatest hits take over the stage. They surround him in a brilliant pastiche of imagery from the ballets he'd starred in and guaranteed success. The faun begins his Egyptian walk across the stage cutting through lines of harem-girls from Scheherezade, lines of folk dancers from the Polovetsian Dances, the tennis-players from Jeux. We're now in Nijinsky's mind, and the choreography ingeniously threads quotations from many Diaghilev-era hits into a counterpointed dance that fills out the entirety of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade. Several Nijinskys may be onstage at any one time. At one point Côté and another dancer are both dancing the Harlequin solo from Carnaval. Mirror-images, misquotes, and distorted images swarm.
And that's just for openers. As the sound-environment switches to the harsher, strident music of Shostakovich, we move deeper into madness.
It's sobering to think that maybe the NBC's more palatable style made Neumeier easier to follow than the eerie, non-musical style of his own company. I checked with other dancers in the house Friday night, and we all agreed that NBC danced to the music and the Hamburg artists had danced with edgy clarity but had often floated free from the music. To see a German dancer launch into a leap without the force of the music to help the lift-off seemed horribly wrong, but it did make the Hamburg atmosphere eerie, and appropriate to a genius undergoing a psychotic break. But I remember well, it made many of us feel that we were losing our minds.
Canada's way of dancing it did not raise nagging thoughts. The Canadians, whom I am eager to see again, swept us up directly into the power of the music. And such music! Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade for Nijinsky's rise to world fame as erotic "dancer of your dreams." Shostakovich's agonizing, war-torn Symphony # 11 (The year 1905) to carry the anguish of Nijinsky's vision of the war and his brother's psychotic nightmares. Neumeier's use of Balkan line-dance formations to indicate the tensions of a community trying to keep it together under fire and in danger of defeat brilliantly embodies the populism of Shostakovich's 11th, with demonic march-rhythms that described the Russian revolution so graphically even the Politburo could understand it.
Neumeier's lines of soldiers, cannon-fodder marching across the back of the stage, and the lines of peasants holding each others' shoulders in the immemorial ancient dances of the people evoke a Tolstoyan spirit, a desire for oneness with his people, that finally put the ballet over-the-top for me. It makes the connection to the sacrifice in the Rite of Spring, Nijinsky's most famous ballet, which is also full of these line dances. I lack the eloquence to express how profoundly I was moved by this desire not only to belong but also to do his duty, to God and to his talent, which is death to hide.
Five years ago I felt insulted by the choreographer's overweening egotism. What other ballet has the choreographer's name in the title of the piece? Now I'm willing to believe that his ambitions are not only worthy, they may have been achieved. The Canadian ensemble danced splendidly.