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article imageReview: 'Nijinsky' is a powerful piece of dance-theater Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Nov 23, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - The dance work 'Nijinsky' reflects its titular subject: it is brilliant, overwhelming, troubled, dazzling, profound. The National Ballet of Canada's production is a showcase for both incredible dancing and profound, heart-rending drama.
Written by Hamburg Ballet director John Neumeier for his company in 2000, the work combines dance and theater to form a memorable theatrical experience that uses the life of the famed Russian dancer to explore the nature of artistry and humanity. Presented as a series of memories, with different dancers for each period of Nijinsky’s life, the work expands dance vocabulary by using unique combinations of movement and mise-en-scene to form a profoundly moving evening of theater. A remount of the National Ballet successful run in early 2013, Nijinsky runs through November 30th at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts.
Opening with a recreation of the final public dance Nijinsky gave, at a St. Moritz institution in 1919, the piece moves between different phases of the dancer’s life, offering the physicalization of a range of roles that made him famous (Harlequin from Carnaval, the Golden Slave in Scheherazade, Petrushka, the Faun in L’Apres-midi d’un faune) and key figures (namely Sergei Diaghilev and Romola Nijinsky, his wife) to form a kind of quasi-biography that, while surreal, highlights the various facets of his life in a way that examines the high price of individualism and artistry. Neumeier researched the original look of the building (long since gone) in order to recreate it onstage, and it’s much to his credit that the set easily conjures the shabby-chic aesthetic of post-war Europe, with white walls, wooden furniture, and a barren, sparse feel. With a grand piano situated toward stage left, we see brief conversing (in Russian) as the house lights are still on, with well-dressed men in suits and ladies in era-specific dresses entering and taking a seat. Nijinsky’s entrance (performed opening night by Principal Dancer Guillaume Cote) is handled carefully, with the man himself wrapped in a shroud-like robe, entering very slowly, before taking a seat and facing the audience, silent. The soft sounds of Chopin fill the room, and the dancer rises, his sharp, spastic movements creating a tortured portrait of pain and suffering.
Circles are a recurring visual motif in  Nijinsky.  (Pictured: Principal Dancer Guillaume Cote in th...
Circles are a recurring visual motif in 'Nijinsky.' (Pictured: Principal Dancer Guillaume Cote in the title role.)
Bruce Zinger
Neumeier presents moments from Nijinsky’s life as a kind of mosaic, so that whether he is staring out at the audience silently (which he supposedly really did before his final public performance) or sitting on a sleigh his wife (Xiao Nan Yu) pulls across the stage (a riff on Nijinsky’s driving a sleigh into traffic during a manic episode), we are always immersed in the drama of life, expressed both in movement and in stillness. Neumeier uses a series of visual motifs — scissored arm movements, leaps that end in falls, leaning, carrying, circles (which connect to Nijinsky’s numerous drawings of them), and waves (hand movements and suggested via lighting) — to provide not only narrative signposts but reveal character, including mental and emotional states, as well as underline the nature of relationships.
Chief among the relationships presented in Nijinsky are those the dancer shared with Sergei Diaghilev (Evan McKie), the founder of Les Ballet Russes, the group that propelled Nijinsky to stardom, and Romola Pulszky, the Hungarian aristocrat he married only two weeks after meeting her on a cruise. These relationships are presented in numerous ways, running the gamut from gentle understanding to rough aggression, and offer a rainbow of insights into character. Neumeier also makes clear ties between his relationships and Nijinsky’s artistry. Whether emerging from a group of dancers in Ballet Russes outfits, physically supporting the dancer —even carrying him — or observing him silently from afar, moving snake-like between his legs, or ultimately casting him aside (literally), Diaghilev casts a rightfully long shadow over the titular character. McKie is marvelously menacing in the role, though he is never one-dimensional; his scenes with Cote are shot through with both tension and tenderness, and the frequent duets they share make for beguiling drama and dance.
Yu, as Romola, is compelling and deeply sympathetic. Neumeier has adjusted the historical record of the character, taking away the gold-digger/fangirl aspect of traditional perceptions and offering a portrait of a woman who was, in many ways Nijinsky’s rock, punching bag, mother, sister, confidante, lover, and caretaker. Never once is she presented as a victim, but rather, as a hovering presence with a mix of both sexy wildness and maternal comfort. As the Golden slave in Scheherazade, Keiichi Hirano is sexy and magnetic, his sinuous movements and confident presence eerily evoking both the dancer and the world he performed in. Hirano brings this magnetism to his turn as Faun in Nijinsky's ill-fated L’Apres-Midi d’un faune as well; his beguilingly androgynous appearance gives us a portrait of Nijinsky’s vanity and sex appeal. Neumeier frequently has the choreography in the “faun” scenes refer to photos of Nijinsky in the costume, and we see Hirano, hands out, palms open, arm curved, entering and exiting the stage during one scene in the first act.
In the title role, Cote is a powerhouse of drama; dancing and acting go hand-in-hand here, and whether doing an intimate pas de deux with Yu, being carried, infant-like, by McKie, or shouting out beats to a chorus of young men in army jackets and white shorts, he is never less than a magnetic, powerful stage presence, an artist who deeply feels the pangs of his character while never once slipping into grandiose gesture or showy technique for the sake of it. His is a truly heartbreaking, magical performance that humanizes the man behind the legend in real, knowable, feeling ways.
Guillaume Cote in  Nijinsky   on now at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in Toronto.
Guillaume Cote in 'Nijinsky', on now at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in Toronto.
Bruce Zinger
Another part of what makes Nijinsky so special is its use of music. Neumeier uses it to highlight and underscore the drama, providing a solid sonic foundation of narrative momentum. Chopin’s Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20 is a dreamy, gentle introduction, while Shostakovich’s Sonata for viola and piano, Op. 147 is rocky, chaotic, effectively used to contrast the earlier grandiose splendor of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Symphony Suite, Op. 35, used later to grand effect, in a scene that recalls the 1924 film The Thief of Baghdad. The choppy, syncopated aggression of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G-Minor from 1905 underscores the drama of the ballet’s second half, which examines the toll of the first world war and Nijinsky’s mental decline. It is powerful, discomforting, thought-provoking, poetic, painful — in other words, deeply human.
What’s so refreshing about Nijinsky is that one need not be intimately familiar with the finer details of the dancer’s life to appreciate the beauty of its presentation or the weightiness of its themes. Neumeier has crafted an eminently watchable, deeply moving piece of dance-theater that not only pays tribute to Vaslav Nijinsky, but to the art of dance, nay, humanity itself. With a mix of sumptuous costumes, arresting sets, and dramatic lighting (all by Neumeier), Nijinsky is a powerful, deeply moving work that leaves an impression long after the curtain comes down.
More about Nijinsky, Guillaume Cote, Ballet, Dance, Dancing
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