National Ballet of Canada Review: Nijinsky

I’m continuing on with my reviews of the 2014-2015 season of the National Ballet of Canada with the performance of Nijinsky. I must admit, the first time I saw this ballet in 2013, my gut reaction was, “Meh.” Sure, the physicality of the dancing was impressive, but the performances by the NBOC are so often impressive. It just didn’t wow me, or move me. When I saw that they were mounting it again this 2014-2015 season, I was actually tempted to switch out the tickets to a different show. Now I’m satisfied I didn’t.

The construction of the ballet doesn’t make it an easy dance confection to swallow, that’s for sure. The choreographer John Neumeier has it all unfolding from the point of view of Nijinsky in his last public performance as he is succumbing to mental illness. Memories and images of people and events from his past mingle with his present, alongside the manifestations in his brain of the madness of the world (World War 1; his complicated relationship to ballet impresario of Les Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev; his wife).

This time seeing it though, the Nov 29 matinee show, it made more of an impression on me.

  • I knew much more about the background and context of the story this time around than the first. For example, the woman who became his wife, Romola, was basically a groupie/stalker who followed him around on tour after seeing him perform. She was in love with the performer, the idea of him, and married that. The way Neumeier staged this with different dancers playing Nijinsky in his various iconic roles alongside the main dancer playing Nijinsky then made more sense. The first time I saw it as just the projection of Nijinsky’s memories of his interactions with Romola. This time I got the additional layer of understanding who and what Romola fell in love with, and having the wonderful moments of acting from the dancer playing her.
  • This time our seats were upgraded complements of the NBOC to orchestra level and so it was a better angle to see the facial expressions. The previous time we were in our usual seats in Ring 4. Argh! I didn’t know what I was missing before! How can I go back up there now?? Well played, NBOC, well played.
  • It being the second time staging this within a short time frame, a more impactful performance could be due to the fact that the majority of the company did not have to learn the ballet anew. Instead, it could be that they could then spend more energy in rehearsal on honing performance, and perhaps that came through in what I saw. If I remember correctly, Skylar Campbell was cast as Nijinsky both times I saw this. I felt he inhabited the character more this second time around, but I did have a hard time reading that real inner conflict over his youthful face. Perhaps more wrinkles would be an asset in this case?
  • Several sections of the music were either discordant or gave no good pauses that act as a cue to the audience that it is a good time for applause. The action and dancing on stage also kept moving, with none of the stereotypical solo-ending poses or flourishes for the audience to respond to. As a result, I, along with the rest of the audience, were too shy too many times to give applause after particularly impressive solos or duets. Is it a matinee thing? And again there was no curtain call, even though again the audience quickly got to their feet for a standing O.

I would definitely concur that Nijinsky is very successful as a work of art to depict to an audience a profile of how a person who live an extraordinary life succumbs to mental illness. Several scenes unfold onstage that makes the viewer uncomfortable and anxious, much like how many people react when encountering someone with mental illness. It is humanizing and strives to lead us towards empathy. On a cerebral level it certainly impresses.

But I don’t love it. The dancing and music and story does not inspire joy in me, which is a main thing I look for when I come to the ballet. And in the end that’s still my position on this ballet, at least now in 2014.