"Nijinsky" had its U.S. premiere at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Calif., and was performed at the City Center in New York last week to full houses and critical accolades. It is the crowning choreographic achievement of Neumeier, the 61-year-old Milwaukee-born dancer who has been director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet since 1973 and whose works have been performed internationally by several other companies.
The two-act, full evening work covers the legendary career of Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky from his engagement by impresario Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes in 1909 to his final public performance in 1919, which was followed by years moving in and out of mental sanitariums until his death in 1950. There have been other ballets about Nijinsky, but none is as biographically thorough as Neumeier's.
"Nijinsky" focuses on the dancer's tortured relationship with the possessive Diaghilev, which ended in tragedy when Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian countess. The marriage resulted in a break with the impresario, Nijinsky's ultimate dismissal from the Ballet Russes and his descent into schizophrenia along with his brother, Stanislas, who plays an important role in Neumeier's ballet.
The work opens spectacularly in the ballroom of a Swiss hotel with Nijinsky's final performance, a solo he created that requires great virtuosity, which he called "Wedding with God." It continues with a choreographic pastiche visualizing Nijinsky's memories and hallucinations in a series of scenes from ballets in which he starred, including "Scheherazade," "The Afternoon of a Faun," "The Specter of the Rose," "Jeux" and "Les Sylphides."
The second act deals with Nijinsky's years of insanity. He is haunted by family problems, the horrors of World War I, his sanitarium experiences, including Romola's tormenting infidelities with a doctor, and the pervading sadness of his separation from Diaghilev suggested by the spectral companionship of the ill-fated puppet, Petrouchka, another of the roles created by Nijinsky.
Neumeier uses both piano and recordings of original ballet scores to accompany his choreography, including Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's thrilling dance music from "Scheherazade," along with compositions by Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann and Dmitri Shostakovich that have been blended seamlessly.
Renaissance man that he is, Neumeier has even created the magnificent sets, the brilliantly conceived costumes and the high-drama lighting, basing his designs on original Ballet Russes designs by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois.
Dancing the role of Nijinsky in the performance seen by this critic was Jiri Bubenicek, a Czech with a particularly bravura approach to dancing whose twin brother, Otto Bubenicek, executes the roles of the golden slave in "Scheherazade" and the faun with equal intensity. Anna Polikarpova, a slender and supple blonde, makes a lovely Romola, true to Nijinsky in her own fashion, and Ivan Urban is suitably effete as Diaghilev although he looks nothing like the big, bearish original.
Yukichi Hattori, a wiry and very talented Japanese member of the company, performs some brutal choreography with ease as Stanislas Nijinsky, who shadows his brother relentlessly. Thiago Bordin is attractive in the role of Leonide Massine, a dancer who shared Diaghilev's favors, and Heather Jurgensen is lovely as Nijinsky's favorite partner, Tamara Karsavina.
Neumeier's interest in becoming a dancer was sparked as a schoolboy when he read a biography of Nijinsky after seeing a few ballets performed on occasion in Milwaukee.
Today he owns one of the major collections of Nijinsky memorabilia, including books, photographs, a sculpture of the dancer as a faun by British artist Una Troubridge, a drawing by Austrian master Gustav Klimt and a plaster cast of one of Nijinsky's feet, which he considers his greatest treasure.