John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, testament of a soul

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, testament of a soul

by Sebastiano Bazzichetto

TORONTO – Have you ever thought of venturing in someone’s psyche, and exploring his deepest thoughts, memories, fears and emotions? If not, and you are a ballet-goer, you should not miss the chance to see John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, performed by the National Ballet of Canada until this November the 26th.


John Neumeier

The ballet
Last night on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre the curtain rose on the second production of the season… but not quite literally. In fact, as the audience was seating in a fully-lit house, they found themselves brought back to 1919 in the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, listening to the notes of a pianist on stage (talented Andrei Streliaev). This was the opening scene of Nijinsky, a most effective way to directly involve the audience in what was about to happen on stage, spectators (us all) who immediately became witnesses.

As the ballet began and Guillaume Côté (Nijinsky), draped in a white toga, made his way to the proscenium, it was clear that something out of the common was about to unfold before our eyes.

To talk about John Neumeier’s work one could not use a single sheet of paper, and probably gallons of ink would be unsatisfactory to chronicle this complex masterpiece of modern dance.
The ballet revolves around Vaslav Nijinsky, known as “le dieu de la danse”,  a god-like male dancer who brought to the world stage a new breed of ballet dancer. He was the first artist who dared to break the rules of traditional choreography, portraying erotic human and demi-human characters, conveying his inner ghastly imaginative mind through steps, gestures and leaps.


Guillaume Côté and Evan McKie in Nijinsky.
Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.

In his work, John Neumeier, like a painter, vividly describes the recollection of feelings, memories and ghosts from the past that inhabit Nijinsky’s mind during his last show in St. Moritz. Divided into two acts, the ballet is a reminiscence of Nijinsky’s life, his successful ballets, his love affaires, his family moments, the tragic experience of the war and the final encounter with something that probably a few can fully understand, commonly known as madness. In so doing, the audience is constantly exposed to the ‘now’ Ninjisky and his alter egos from his glorious past, in a kaleidoscope of roles that made Vaslav famous, from the Golden Slave to the Faun and bittersweet Petrushka.

golden .jpg

Vaslav Nijinsky as The Golden Slave.

The cast
In the title role, throughout two intense (to say the least) hours of show, Guillaume Côté proved to be a dazzling and four-dimensional Nijinsky, in every step, every gesture, every facial expression he made. Heather Ogden was his trustful, understanding and tender companion as Nijinsky’s wife, Romola, a woman who fell very likely in love more with the alter ego Faun than with Vaslav the man. Acutely captivating was Evan McKie’s performance, who danced the role of Serge Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s impresario, mentor and lover for many years. McKie and Côté were able to give bone and flesh to the love between two men as a few artists have been able to do with such a sensitive enactment.


Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Metaphorically speaking, the clock wouldn’t be perfectly oiled without the presence of some outstanding secondary roles: Nijinsky’s alter egos. Naoya Ebe turned out to be a slender, sensual soul as the Spirit of the Rose. On the other hand, Francesco Gabriele Frola mesmerized the audience with his high leaps, spinning in the air as if flying in the role of the Golden Slave. With Egyptian-like movements he proved to be hypnotizing also in the Faun role. The overwhelming crescendo of the war was brought to the stage by Jonathan Renna’s terrific interpretation of the melancholic Petrushka.
The corps the ballet wonderfully completed the major roles in its demanding, quick-moving and powerful choreography.

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The music and costumes
The music that supports Nijinsky is a well-orchestrated pastiche of different composers, arranging music by Chopin, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsokov and Shostakovich. And last night David Briskin’s baton did not fail the audience’s expectation.
The costumes were quite magnificent, not merely reproducing the fashion of the time (or the costumes worn by Nijinsky, based on originals by Bakst and Benois) but also cleverly inspired by the genius of Paul Poiret and his oriental evening dresses.


Four years after its première in Toronto, the production staged by the National Ballet of Canada did once again sublime justice to John Neumeier’s ballet, a ballet destined to become a milestone in the repertoire of every company that wants to prove its ability to tell the story of a dancer who was also a man, and to speak to modern audiences about the mysterious realm that lies within every and each one of us.

[Nijinsky runs until November 26, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre]

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