The Australian Ballet boldly rewards their audience and dancers alike with John Neumeier’s dramatic adult fantasia Nijinsky.
Performed by a company outside Hamburg Ballet for only the second time since its 2000 creation, Nijinsky is an extraordinary achievement for The Australian Ballet. A relatively simple idea at its heart, the abstract complexity and serious themes of the work give it an epic grandeur. The limits of the company are stretched not just by the unique mix of modern and classical dance required but also by the sheer number of dancers required on stage. The curtain call on opening night almost resembled a full company bow, and was greeted by the appreciative roar of a full standing ovation.
A highly personal work, the scope of the work is clearly due to the vision and driving passion of choreographer John Neumeier. Neumeier’s singular talent is further revealed by the fact that he took on the rare feat of also designing the scenery, costumes and lighting. The company has been blessed by Neumeier’s presence in the rehearsal and staging process, supported by his highly experienced colleagues from Hamburg and Canada.
The ballet has an unusual extended opening sequence. The audience enters the auditorium to find the curtain raised on a highly realistic scene of the ballroom at Suvretta House, St Moritz. With neither the traditional lowering of house lights nor entrance of conductor, the stage action begins with another ballet rarity: dialogue. Stylish guests gather in a flurry of excitement to see Vaslav Nijinsky dance, their high spirits somewhat dampened as the great man performs a jerky, unconnected series of moves that seem to flit from role to role.
Slowly, the house lights dim, the set melts away and the orchestra takes over the accompaniment, as Nijinsky travels feverishly through his memories of love and life on the stage. A tour through some of Nijinsky’s iconic roles, the ballet winds strands of madness, betrayal, passion and the brutality of war.
A principal of Hamburg Ballet and veteran of some 35 Neumeier ballets, guest artist Alexandre Riabko danced the title role on opening night. Riabko clearly has the work in his bones, and his talent blazes forth in every move. Furthermore, Riabko’s calm control and nuanced portrayal of inner turmoil add significant heft to the performance. The combination of thorough rehearsal and talent from both sides has allowed Riabko to work seamlessly as a member of the company, achieving a relaxed, intimate connection that usually derives from years of teamwork.
Effortlessly combining music from Chopin, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, maestro Nicolette Fraillon delivers a finely nuanced yet unshowy performance from Orchestra Victoria. Pianist Duncan Salton makes an invaluable contribution on stage in the opening scene.
Part one is a showcase for Neumeier’s ingenious designs, which draw significant elements from the great works to create a cohesive whole. There are moments of vivid colour and spectacular ballet as the reminiscences move in and out of Nijinsky’s mind. Neumeier’s lighting is especially creative, and looks stunning on the vast State Theatre stage. The act concludes with a return to Suvretta House, the various characters and dancers joining the original guests on stage in a collage of memory fragments.
Dressed in an elegant, floor length red velvet dress, Amy Harris gives a seductive performance as Vaslav’s wife, Romola. The character was not a dancer but Neumeier has choreographed the narrative for the role carefully and Harris dances and acts it exquisitely.
Nijinsky’s journey to the past is prompted by the appearance of his great love Diaghilev at Suvretta House. It is hard to imagine another dancer bringing the combination of confident magnetism, supple strength and tender passion that Adam Bull brings to the role. Bull and Riabko convey Diaghilev and Nijinsky’s nonverbal communication and lifelong bond vividly, and dance together with a sensuality that appears entirely natural.
Other clear highlights in part one include Christopher Rodgers-Wilson as the Young Man in Jeux, and Cristiano Martino as the Golden Slave in Schérhérazade. As The Ballerina, Ako Kondo performs a range of roles with reliable grace. Leanne Stojmenov elegantly dance roels played by Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava.
The second half of Nijinsky has a change of tone, as the onslaught of World War One impacts the arts. The company performs in neutral, pale grey costumes as Nijinsky recollects his wife’s infidelity and his family’s own madness. The shadow of the war begins subtly, with first one soldier marching across upstage, then another, then another, until eventually all the male corps have army jackets over their dancewear. The male dancers rise to the challenge of the extra focus on their work, creating a combined strength that has an inspiring impact.
In a highly affecting performance, François-Eloi Lavignac shows incredible skill in portraying Stanislav Nijinsky’s madness and eventual death. Nijinsky’s grief and sense of helplessness for his brother are giving time and weight in the narrative, increasing the painful impact of events.
Another powerful highlight in act two is the work of Brett Simon as Petruschka. With the puppet’s strings cut, metaphorically, by the war, Petruschka flounders about in a painful reduction of his usual grace.
The madness that ended Nijinsky’s career is seen in a cruel light given his extensive contribution to the language and repertoire of ballet. Nijinsky is a fitting celebration of the legacy and a moving tribute to Nijinsky’s life.
Working on Nijinsky has clearly galvanised and inspired the company. With Coppélia on the near horizon for younger ballet audience members to enjoy, adult theatregoers will revel in the mature themes and highly intelligent staging of Nijinsky.
Nijinsky plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 17 September 2016 before touring to Adelaide and Sydney.
Photos: Jeff Busby