John Neumeier’s Nijinsky

By Michael Crabb

The National Ballet of Canada’s Francesco Gabriele Frola in Neumeier's Nijinsky // © Aleksandar Anto

His dancing career lasted scarcely a decade. He choreographed just four works, only one of which has survived with any serious claim to authenticity. Yet, 63 years after his death, Vaslav Nijinsky remains an iconic figure—and a haunting presence in the life of American-born choreographer John Neumeier, whose two-act Nijinsky is performed by The National Ballet of Canada.

Neumeier’s fascination with Nijinsky began when, as a dance-lovingsixth-gradee student in Milwaukee, he came across a stirringly titled book: Anatole Bourman’s The Tragedy of Nijinsky. “It made Nijinsky a real person in my mind,” Neumeier recalls.

From then on Neumeier devoured whatever information could be gleaned about Nijinsky, as an incandescent performer and innovative choreographer, and as a tortured soul. He even interviewed Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. “Such a clever woman. I’m quite kind to her in my ballet,” he says, in oblique reference to the way Romola has often been disparaged.

By then Neumeier had a well-stocked library of works about his idol and had begun building what is now the most extensive Nijinsky collection in private hands. In addition to artistic representations of the dancer, there are photographs, costumes, the only plaster cast of his foot, and an autographed menu from Nijinsky and Romola’s wedding breakfast. It all resides in Neumeier’s house. “It’s quite full,” he says laconically.

Nijinsky, born in Kiev in 1889, was a product of the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. He entered young adulthood during an era of revolutionary rumblings that spilled over into the ballet. Michel Fokine, nine years Nijinsky’s senior, offered a choreographic challenge to what he regarded as the formulaic conventions of Russian classicism, epitomized by the sprawling spectacles of Marius Petipa.

When the great impresario Serge Diaghilev presented a season of Russian ballet in Paris in 1909, Nijinsky was already one of the Imperial Ballet’s brightest hopes. Under Diaghilev’s tutelage and with a succession of Fokine ballets to showcase his unparalleled talents—Petrushka, Le Spectre de la rose and, most famously, Schéhérazade—Nijinsky quickly became an international sensation.

During successive Ballets Russes tours, Western audiences were astounded by Nijinsky’s athleticism, animal magnetism, and miraculous ability to absorb himself totally into every role. His fame, fueled by a tantalizing aura of androgyny and the frisson of scandal surrounding his scarcely discreet relationship with Diaghilev, made Nijinsky a celebrity.

In 1912 Diaghilev encouraged his lover-protégé to try his hand at choreography. The results were startling. L’Après-mid d’un faune, to the Debussy score, shocked audiences with its unabashed eroticism and Nijinsky’s presentation of himself in radically stylized, almost minimalist movement.

Nijinsky followed in 1913 with Jeux, a quasi-abstract ballet that used the metaphor of a tennis game to depict, again with carefully symbolic movement, the tangled relations of a man and two female companions.

The biggest shock came later the same year with Nijinsky’s Sacre du printemps to Stravinsky’s seismically controversial score. Nijinsky, hailed as a god of the dance, excluded himself from the limelight, choosing instead to emphasis group patterns in his savage portrayal of ritual sacrifice in pagan Russia. The Paris premiere provoked a riot.

According to Neumeier, Nijinsky “broke new and original paths towards modern choreography … completely independent from the classical brilliance of his own virtuosity and the astounding projection of his performance presence.”

When Nijinsky choreographed Till Eulenspiegel in 1916, there were already indications of the schizophrenia that was prematurely to terminate his career. In January 1919, he gave his last public performance, a solo recital, in the ballroom of a St. Moritz, Switzerland hotel, the Suvretta House, which Neumeier photographed before its demolition and meticulously evokes in his designs.

This poignant farewell is depicted by Neumeier in a prologue where Nijinsky imagines Diaghilev, from whom he’s been long estranged, among the audience. It triggers a cascade of memories, flashbacks that in the course of the first act trace his years as a Ballets Russes star with references to key roles, but also to the complex interweaving of Nijinsky’s professional and private life.

Neumeier describes the second act as “more an interior landscape,” a war-ravaged world viewed through the prism of Nijinsky’s own wounded psyche.

“A ballet can never be a documentary,” says Neumeier, characterizing his Nijinsky as “a biography of the soul, a biography of feelings and sensations.” It is, he says, “a choreographic approach” to the complex puzzle of a dance phenomenon.

Michael Crabb writes about dance for The Toronto Star. A longer version of this article originally appeared in Canada’s Dance International magazine.