Even though it has been a century since Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) danced in his prime, his artistic energy flows forward in time, crashing on the Four Season Centre’s stage in a wild wave of visionary brilliance. In fact, the stage holds but cannot fully contain John Neumeier’s Nijinksy, for I still carry the performance with me two days after I saw it.
When I think about the ballet, I am most haunted by the scene set in a Swiss hotel’s ballroom in 1919. There, the title character improvised a solo that turned out to be his final public appearance before schizophrenia made it impossible for him to work (“John Neumeier’s Nijinsky,” by Michael Crabb, Performance Program, page 8).
In the hotel scene, Nijinsky stands holding one hand outstretched overhead, fingers spread wide, his body tense. Slowly, the hand turns into a fist. He drives the fist into his mouth, and as his arm continues to push down, the force of this movement pushes him all the way to the floor. He lies there with his fist still in his mouth, stunned by this primal act of self-inflicted violence.
When my eyes followed the trajectory of that cruel driving fist, I witnessed a moment of pain so raw and private that I felt I shouldn’t be watching it. The dancer’s anguish and despair felt real. The fist’s repression hinted at a buried scream that it was desperate to silence. The character’s struggle within himself literally brought him low, a dancer known for his spellbinding leaps now slapping the floor with his hands.
The second scene that I cannot forget arrived in the second act. Asylum inmates in dove-gray ballet costumes hoist up from their midst a Broken Boy. He stands on the shoulders of two male inmates, and each member of the group that encircles him raises one arm straight up in the air, their palms the face of prayer.
When soldiers dressed in green jackets and briefs storm the asylum, the Broken Boy gets crushed as they stomp around him in unison, their aggressive dance not softened by the presence of a woman with long hair in a body stocking. The Broken Boy tries to run but gets stuck. He is bent over, one of his hands steadying him on the floor while the other flies up. His jacket flops over his head as his legs spin in useless circles, going nowhere.
Looming over the intense turmoil are two large illuminated circles that tilt oppressively. The choreography mirrors the circles in a pattern that Nijinsky follows as he twirls with his arms overhead in a perfect circle. At one point, an anonymous dancer circles the still figure of Nijinsky as if he is a Maypole. And during the Scheherezade dance, lines of dancers break off into circles like arcing beads of earth magnets as Nijinsky swoops lyrically, his body and arms creating symmetrical half-circles of constant movement.
The heartbreaking beauty of Nijinsky communicates what human disconnection feels like (hands and arms that undulate in proximity but rarely touch) and the suffering of a person crashing on the rocks of isolation and pain. Nijinsky’s psychological struggle reveales itself in unforgettable images: the fist in the mouth, the Harlequin kicking the stage wall, the Golden Slave with his arms crossed overhead as if bound by a rope, the man in the straightjacket rolling across the floor, and the long lengths of red and black velvet that twine around Nijinsky’s limbs in the final scene.
As a grateful viewer of this powerful ballet, I’d like to thank John Neumeier and the National Ballet of Canada for expanding my understanding of Nijinsky and teaching me through dance what no psychology or history textbook could express with such visceral impact.