Ballet Review: Nijinsky

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-12-07-10-amPhoto credit: Kate Longley

What:  Nijinsky

Where: The Adelaide Festival Centre

When: Until 18th October

How much: Visit the Adelaide Festival Centre website for details

Ballet, like most things, is best viewed with some contextual background. The Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky – working in conjunction with the piece’s original creator John Neumeier – depicts the troubled life of the titular Vaslav Nijinsky. Most imperative to understanding the show is a rough outline of Nijinsky’s life: growing up as a talented dancer in Kiev, and then St. Petersburg, he quickly rose through the ranks as a dancer of the utmost skill. Upon graduating, he quickly established himself, not only as arguably the best male classical ballet dancer ever seen, but as a choreographer working on the cutting edge.

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Photo credit: Kate Longley

Nijinsky’s life was far from perfect. Beset by sporadic schizophrenia his entire life, Nijinsky was, to say the least, troubled. Marital infidelity, predatory older mentors, and the entirety of World War One were among the most prominent physiological and psychological challenges faced by him over his relatively short life.

Neumeier’s ballet is essentially a meta-textual biopic, a wonderfully woven web of Nijinsky’s life and art. Characters from his performances become his family and friends, their relationships with him represented through their performative traits. This clever combination of reality and fiction creates a carnival atmosphere of whirling lights and sound. Ingeniously, some of his most famous pieces are re-enacted and then shifted and combined into a larger narrative whole, blending historical fact with magical realism and contemporary dance. The pesky fawn from Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune constantly re-appears, his dancing style a bizarrely flat, out-turned one, as though he was an Egyptian hieroglyphic. The fawn serves a dual purpose, acting as both narrative description of the sexual deviancy of Nijinsky’s wife, while also reminding the audience why Nijinsky’s dancing and choreography are held in such high regard with his stunningly prescient use of alternative movement as dance.

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-12-10-20-amPhoto credit: Kate Longley

A momentous second half – replete with an extraordinary finale – round out the piece. Nijinsky’s descent into madness is vividly rendered onstage as a swirling hellscape, with his mental turmoil echoed by the wider events of World War One. The orchestral score explodes with punctuated elements mimicking the booms and rattles of gunfire, while Nijinsky’s psyche splits in twain. A manically powerful performance is given by Petrouchka (the Sad Clown), spasming and furiously beating the walls of his mental prison.

Neumeier sprinkles motifs throughout the entire piece, cohesively bonding each disparate section of Nijinsky’s life together. Some of these motifs take the form of overtly repeated motions, others as whole sections of choreography. Some are more subtle, with elements of staging or characterisation replicated and reflected again and again, all of which attest to the nuance and detail of Neumeier’s creation.

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Photo credit: Kate Longley

Neumeier stages the piece in a particularly cinematic fashion, borrowing the grand staging from 1920’s and 30’s Hollywood. One can almost see the rapid camera tracking to land on a villain’s face due to the dynamically opposed staging. Furthermore, the use of slow motion bolsters the dream-like cinema onstage, playing with our perception of the fictional reality, and with our preconceptions of ballet itself.

Truly a momentous achievement, The Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky is superb. Engaging for those not particularly interested in classical ballet, referentially valid for those that are, it is one surely not to be missed.

5 out of 5 stars

– Alexander W. Possingham

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