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"Nijinsky" in Hamburg, 3-27 and 3-29, 2007

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All right, this post is super late, but schoolwork and other commitments took up so much of the last few months, and I have so many pages of notes that it’s hard to summarize. Please forgive me if my report is lacking as I am still pretty new to the world of ballet.

I won’t go into too much personal stuff here, but let me just explain a little about the trip. I saw the Hamburg Ballet perform Nijinsky in 2004, by chance, really, having seen only a few Nutcrackers as a child. I thought it was amazing, years passed, and a few months ago I decided to go on a trip to Germany to see it again.

I tried to learn as much about Nijinsky as I could before leaving (thanks go to volocanohunter, who helped me with this) so I could better understand the ballet. It was definitely helpful to watch videos of some of the Ballets Russes ballets, and I’ve learned so much from this forum since I became a member.

So – the ballet. The first act deals with Nijinsky’s rise to stardom and most of it is set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. There’s a lot crammed into it—the first movement alone covers Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose, and Scheherazade. The ballets sort of leak into each other, with dancers from each of them mingling onstage. Different dancers play Nijinsky’s different roles, interacting with him and the other characters (Romola, Diaghilev, &c.).

Neumeier finds such interesting ways to depict pieces of Nijinsky’s life, often placing important events, emotions, or relationships within the context of his dances. For example, in the first act, the Rose is carried onstage by men in top hats. He proceeds to enchant Diaghilev, who plays the role of the girl in the chair. But from that introduction we move to much different choreography. And later in the ballet, Massine is introduced as the young man from Jeux, entering the scene holding a tennis racket.

Neumeier quotes from Fokine and Nijinsky but not extensively—he more often choreographs parts for the dancer-Nijinskys in the style of their choreography. We might see a character in a familiar pose a few times, but the rest is new. And while at time it’s jarring to see, say, the Faun onstage while music from Scheherazade is played, Neumeier has found ways to fit the characters to the music surprisingly well.

I really liked the interaction between Diaghilev and Nijinsky. There was a recurring movement they would do during their pas de deux, a sign of affection, where Diaghilev would stand with one arm straight out. Nijinsky would come up and—slowly, gently, tenderly—slide his hand on Diaghilev’s, palm to palm. Later, during the Jeux segment, Diaghilev and Massine were dancing and Diaghilev happened to put his hand out. Nijinsky responded, but Diaghilev moved his hand to support Massine, as if he hadn’t even noticed Nijinsky. It was such a crushing rejection—casual in appearance, but powerful.

The second act, set to Shostakovich’s 11th symphony, is more abstract, but also more emotionally powerful. There’s more with Nijinsky’s family, especially his brother Stanislav. This act deals with Nijinsky going mad. Neumeier saves Petrushka for this act, setting him against the war to emphasize Nijinsky’s struggle. It’s as if he’s representing Nijinsky’s inner torment and mocking him as well. First, Petrushka seems to act out Nijinsky’s feelings of helplessness. But then, later, Petrushka goes over to Nijinsky and dances in front of him, with exaggerated, clownish movements and gestures, a big smile pasted on his face, as if making fun of Nijinsky. Lloyd Riggins (who’s been truly great in everything I’ve seen with him) was just stunning in the role.

I saw two performances, on March 27 and 29. The first performance I enjoyed most, with Alexandre Riabko as Nijinsky, Anna Polikarpova as Romola, and Ivan Urban as Diaghilev.

Riabko is such an amazing Nijinsky--he just seems to throw all of himself into the role, in his dancing and in his acting. He creates a whole character, a complex man. His Nijinsky is trusting, reaching out to others, wanting to be loved, sometimes easily hurt—but not foolish or naïve. He has his moments of confidence and pride. It’s heartbreaking to watch him try to regain Diaghilev’s affections after Massine enters the picture. Later, with Romola, he seems (although tentative at first) to experience real joy. He’s absolutely convincing in the role, injecting real feeling into each movement, dancing with such abandon and passion. Someone I met at the ballet said, “When you see him as Nijinsky, you forget he’s ever done any other role” and I agree.

Riabko never looks like he’s going through the motions when he dances. Many times his movements looked spontaneous, as if they were physical manifestations of emotions he was experiencing right at that moment. It was him I saw as Nijinsky in 2004, and I think I’d see him dance anything. His performance was just incredible.

Otto Bubeníček made a wonderful Golden Slave, sly and sensual. As the Faun, he exuded power, a picture of control, with the walk and gestures of the role down perfectly.

Neumeier does something very clever in letting us see those dancer-Nijinskys as Romola falls in love with him. Seeing him seductive as the Golden Slave, or erotic as the Faun, forces us to experience reactions similar to those audiences must have had in the years of the Ballets Russes. We are mesmerized by Nijinsky as we watch Romola become mesmerized by him. Through that shared experience, we understand her a little more. Polikarpova made a beautiful and sympathetic Romola.

The other performance of Nijinsky I saw was very good as well, but it was hard for me to watch it without constantly comparing Riabko and Bubeníček (who was Nijinsky that night). At first, it almost seemed like Bubeníček was going through the motions, but by the second act, he seemed more emotionally involved with the role and gave a truly remarkable performance.

Riabko played the Rose that night, and he was just so lovely in the role. Each move of his arm, each wave of his hand, was carefully crafted and beautiful, and he had this serene smile on his face the whole time.

At the end of each performance, Neumeier spoke briefly (in German, of course, so I'm relying on a friend's translation) about the Nijinsky exhibition he is planning for 2009, which will become a museum for the many related items in Neumeier's collection. Right now, he is trying to raise money to buy some of Nijinsky's drawings which were not previously available. There's more information in this flyer on the ballet's web site.

This ballet will be performed again in Hamburg on July 5, but there are no performances scheduled for next year, unfortunately. It’s not for everyone—I get the feeling it’s a “love it or hate it” sort of piece—but I thought it was amazing, even better than I remembered.

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Thank you so much, fadedhour, for the detailed description of the ballet and your critique of the dancers who portrayed the main role and the characters in Nijinksky ballets. :clapping: It was very generous of you to share this with us, especially since so few of us can see performances in Hamburg.

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