Live review: The Hamburg Ballet, Nijinsky

Neumeier's hero worship pays rich dividends in this danced retelling of the life of the Ballets Russes star.

It’s an odd coincidence that two of the luminaries of world ballet both have two works premiering in Australia in as many weeks. Boris Eifman has personally brought his St Petersburg-based company here (to Sydney and Melbourne) for the first time. Meanwhile, in Brisbane, the ballets of legendary American choreographer John Neumeier are being performed by his own company, the Hamburg Ballet.

Even odder is the fact that each choreographer has chosen to regale the Australian public with a ballet-biography of their artistic hero. For Eifman, this is Tchaikovsky; for Neumeier, it is Vaslav Nijinsky. This primo of the Ballets Russes danced the leads in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Jeux, but, most famously, sparked a riot at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées in 1913 performing his own shockingly savage choreography for The Rite of Spring.

With its modest beginnings, years spent at the heights of creative brilliance and tragic descent into lunacy, the life of Nijinsky is begging for dramatic treatment. Neumeier’s ballet opens in a studio in Paris, where various dancers and admirers await the arrival of the great Nijinsky (Alexandre Riabko). He appears, dishevelled and manic, and leaves the visitors more disturbed than impressed by his anguished, spasmodic movements. Suddenly, the walls of the studio drift away, and a parade of Ballets Russes characters lures us into a tour of Nijinsky’s life in the ballet, refracted through the warped prism of the dancer’s psychosis. Incarnations of Nijinsky as the Firebird, Sinbad and Petrushka come and go, engaging the real Nijinsky in pas de deux ranging in tone from tender to combative…

These ballet characters also interact with real people from the life of Nijinsky – his wife Romola (Anna Polikarpova), his sister Bronislava (Patricia Tichy) and, most notably, the redoubtable impresario Diaghilev (Ivan Urban), the dancer’s lover, mentor and boss.

The high points of the ballet are the group episodes, with the Hamburg corps de ballet always impeccably synchronised and drilled to convey all the nuances of Neumeier’s language. It is in these unimaginably complex group scenes that the choreographer’s imagination is realised most fully. There are definite longueurs, meanwhile, in the scenes between Nijinsky and Bronislava, set to Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano. After interval, it’s all action, as Nijinsky’s fantasies and psychoses become more fervid (to Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11), climaxing in a return to the ballet studio of act one. Now, Nijinsky’s madness has extended to the whole world; two jackbooted soldiers march across the stage in a chilling reminder of the horror that followed the decadence of the Ballets Russes epoch.

Alexandre Riabko as Nijinsky delivers an utter tour de force: he is as thrilling in the pastiches of the Ballets Russes style as he is in Neumeier’s elaborate expressions of psychosis. Ivan Urban brings much gravitas to Diaghilev, conveying both charisma and an aura of power with his languid, aristocratic movements.

But it seems almost petty to choose favourites when the overall quality was so brilliant. It’s an enormous thrill to see ballet of this calibre in Brisbane, and I urge locals to seize the opportunity to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream this week – a work that just may be Neumeier’s magnum opus.

A Midsummer Night's Dream runs at QPAC from August 30 – September 5. View event details here.

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Live review: The Hamburg Ballet, Nijinsky
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