writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Clichés of Madness

The Hamburg Ballet
City Center
New York, NY
February 20–2
2, 2004

by Gia Kourlas
copyright 2004 by Gia Kourlas
published 23 February 2004

After spending Friday night with John Neumeier’s latest full-evening catastrophe about Vaslaw Nijinsky (yes, another histrionic attempt to depict the famous dancer), I can’t help but imagine what went into his “Nijinsky File.” You know—points of inspiration for visual design and character development; I’m not referring to historical photographs or sketches of costumes or musical scores. This version of Nijinsky’s life falls into the category of trying to make insanity hot (as opposed to truly sad, which it was), or unintentionally funny, which is more often the unfortunate case. Apart from actual research—and he does reportedly have a vast collection of Nijinsky memorabilia—Neumeier seems to have had two things on his mind before he stepped into the studio with his dancers: homoerotic Calvin Klein advertisements (those featuring young men in underwear) and Adam Cooper in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (that’s his Diaghilev).

Before the performance begins Neumeier leaves the stage exposed so that the audience can admire his set, which he describes in program notes as “a realistic recreation” of the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where Nijinsky danced publicly for the last time in Wedding with God. The dollhouse scenery, illuminated by stark white lighting, clearly resembles the original ballroom yet lacks its stylish vintage grandeur. The white balcony seems as hollow as it likely is—as if constructed from the same chalky cement used in dental impressions. Couples, draped in ’20-style dresses and tuxedo, settle into chairs to watch the show, and it’s all a bit comical; Neumeier is clearly going for elegance, but the scene somehow resembles adults playing dress-up in a chain hotel.

At first, Nijinsky (Jirí Bubenícek), after being introduced by his wife, Romola (Anna Polikarpova), remains somewhat still onstage; soon, his movement becomes tinged with violence. In a mad vision, he sees Serge Diaghilev (Ivan Urban) watching from the balcony, clapping his hands, as if in mock sarcasm. The solo becomes more lighthearted, and Neumeier departs from his realistic recreation to introduce ghosts of the dancer’s past– in the form of famous roles such as the Spirit of the Rose in Le Spectre de la Rose, the Golden Slave in Scheherazade, Harlequin in Carnaval, the Young Man from Jeux, and later, Petrushka. More characters are introduced, and sloppily so, from Tamara Karsavina to Bronislava, his sister, and Stanislav, his equally mad brother. Eventually, the crowd parts and we are forced to endure an overly long and obligatory seduction scene between Nijinsky and Diaghilev (there is an encore of this a bit later with Romola). Think tangled limbs. The only dramatic shift in the second act is that as Nijinsky’s schizophrenia becomes more severe—and he creates the controversial Le sacre du printemps—he becomes more anxious; images from World War I are juxtaposed against those from his dances, and he retreats inward.

The attempt to shrink a man’s life into more than two hours of stream-of-consciousness movement is bewildering and not the only tragedy to be found in Neumeier’s endless ballet; it’s reminds me of the way Boris Eifman arranges the scenes in his cluttered dances. Ballet steps do not constitute a ballet, and Neumeier, like Eifman, has little flair in ordering steps into a dance or offering the viewer a coherent storyline (scenes are either overly simplistic or complex and confused). The staging, when all the characters appear, lacks clarity, and during more intimate pas de deux, is bereft of movement invention and climax. In every solo, pas de deux or group dance, Neumeier only communicates that his ability lies in the delusion of the false ending—when the real one finally arrives, well, you just don’t care.

Music, played on City Center’s atrocious sound system is a blaring mess; arranged by Neumeier, it shifts, with little ease, from Chopin to movements from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11in G-minor, Op. 103. The chosen selections didn’t help to glue the action onstage, and an often-overwhelming excess of characters only helped to muddle the effort. A real control freak, an approach I normally admire given all the failed collaborations of late, Neumeier himself presides over the ballet’s sets and costumes, which are loosely based on original sketches by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois. Again, it all seems a bit cheap.

As Nijinsky, Bubenícek is both a cartoon character whose insanity is indicated in clichéd images—he rubs his chest in agony, he droops to the floor after a failed pirouette and he greets images of his past roles, all portrayed by other dancers, with the delight of a retarded child. Urban’s Diaghilev is dashing and blond, in later scenes, he dons a tuxedo jacket and pants but no shirt (as with many of the male characters, Neumeier proves he is fond of the bare chest) and is more contemporary looking than Nijinsky himself. His cocky attitude conjures Cooper’s seductive Von Rotbart but his pimp act looks like a big put-on. Polikarpova’s Romola (most of the female roles in this ballet seem an afterthought) borders on tawdry; with her over-processed blond hair and heavy makeup, she was less the woman who came between Diaghilev and Nijinsky than the sort of lady you typically encounter at the bar at the Russian Samovar on a Saturday night. Twenty-one going on 90.

As Stanislav, however the Japanese dancer Yukichi Hattori is something special. In the second act, he performs a most explosive solo that makes you, for a few minutes at least, believe that someone onstage IS actually grappling with emotional torment; foreshadowing Nijinsky’s own descent into madness, his off-kilter jumps come crashing to the floor with real fearlessness. His robotic tension is devastating, and using his impeccable technique and subtle acting skills, he channels insanity without layering his portrayal with the usual melodramatic anguish.

Neumeier is correct in thinking a ballet shouldn’t be a documentary, but his attempt at depicting Nijinsky’s life comes off like a cheap music video, so convoluted and messy, it ends up on the wrong side of bizarre. In an interview in the New York Times, Neumeier stated his grand aim: “to make a present tense of Nijinsky.” Such an objective is as absurd and vague as the resulting dance. When the curtain came down prematurely in the final moments—Nijinsky returns to the ballroom, his original point of departure—the audience hardly knew what to do. Had Neumeier ended his ballet with Nijinsky still swirling in his own memory of all he used to be? Unfortunately, it was just another mistake in this shoddy production. The curtain rose again so that Bubenícek’s Nijinsky could leave us with a final tormented vision; wrapping his body in two long rolls of black-and-burgundy cloth, he collapses to the floor. The final cliché, perhaps, of how a madman is supposed to act.

Read other DVT reviews of Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:

From D.C.:  Clare Croft: Nijinsky: Lost in the Chaos
Alexandra Tomalonis:  Nijinsky: Madness and Metaphor
George Jackson:  Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes

Photos: (all photos by Holger Badekow)
First:  opening scene.
Second:  Jirí Bubenícek (Nijinsky) and Ivan Urban (Diaghilev)
Third:  Jirí Bubenícek (Nijinsky)
Fourth:  Yukichi Hattori (Stanislav Nijinsky)

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 8
February 23, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by  Gia Kourlas



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last updated on January 11, 2004