Happy returns

On Dancing’s reviews of John Neumeier’s extraordinary choreography, Nijinsky—both the recent Australian Ballet production, which I have not seen, and the link to that of 2012 for the Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane,* are welcome reminders of the Hamburg company’s stellar achievements.

Telling reference is made to the circular shapes incorporated into the set design, echoing paintings by Nijinsky—and lucky we are that one of his paintings is held in a private collection in Wellington, a tiny telescoping of ballet history.

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I keep indelible memories of two trips to Hamburg, 2005 and 2015, where I saw in total ten of Neumeier’s full-length works. What astonishing programming in two short weeks, demonstrating the enduring worth of keeping repertoire extant, instead of allowing Rip Van Winkle to steal away with choreographed treasure never more to be seen in a lifetime, as happens in too many places.

Hamburg Ballet’s detailed website is further evidence of this artistic confidence, paying much respect to the casts listed at its premiere and in subsequent seasons, to the audiences’ interest in such things, and in the company’s future programming, which gives us the wherewithal to make fruitful travel plans.

Jiri Bubenicek created the lead role in the 2000 premiere cast of Nijinsky in Hamburg, and his twin brother Otto Bubenicek danced the Golden Slave and the Faun in that same season. After many years with Hamburg Ballet, the brothers, now collaborating and working on an international circuit, Jiri in choreography and Otto in design, will this month prepare a work on New Zealand School of Dance students for their graduation show in November. I look forward to viewing and reviewing it.

Australia’s Daniel Gaudiello proved a most gracious and convincing Albrecht in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent Giselle—and soon our Joseph Skelton crosses the Tasman in the other direction to guest as Albrecht in the Australian Ballet’s production.

RNZB will soon offer a studio season of new work by dancers aspiring to choreograph. Again this will be named for memory of dear Harry Haythorne.

Thus the ballet world continues to turn with little more than demi-plié degrees of separation between practitioners and their ephemeral heritage.  Words on dance websites help hold the gossamer together between seasons.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington 12 October 2016


*which I did get lucky to see, in their wonderful double billing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which in turn makes interesting contrast now with Liam Scarlett’s choreography in the co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet.  RNZB are performing it this week in Hong Kong at the Shakespeare festival there—then home for a brief Wellington season).

Featured image: Photo: Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Nijinsky, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby
Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

The Australian Ballet in 2016

Mixed in with old faithfuls like Swan Lake and Coppélia, the Australian Ballet’s program for 2016 contains one or two works that we can anticipate with a bit of excitement. One of them is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which will be seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, although we will have to wait until the last few months of the year.

Nijinsky was created in 2000 for Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and was seen recently in Australia when Hamburg Ballet performed it in Brisbane in 2012. On that occasion it received a standing ovation on its opening night—and I mean a real standing ovation where the theatre rose as one. No stragglers, no people leaving to catch the subway before the rush, no one standing up because they couldn’t see what was happening because the person in the row in front was blocking their view. A proper standing ovation. Neumeier calls Nijinsky ‘a biography of the soul, of feelings, emotions, and of states of mind’. It needs wonderful dancing, and fabulous acting. My fingers are crossed. Here is what I wrote about it from Brisbane.

Another program that fills me with anticipation is a triple bill called Vitesse presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon (DGV: Danse à grande vitesse), Jiri Kylian (Forgotten Land) and William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). It is scheduled for the early part of the year and will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Forgotten Land and In the Middle are not new to the Australian Ballet repertoire having been introduced during Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship. I remember watching people leave the auditorium after the opening sounds of Thom Willems score for In the Middle (it was 20 years ago), but it showed off certain dancers of that era absolutely brilliantly. But the Wheeldon is new to Australia. It is a work for 26 dancers with four pairs of dancers at the heart of the work. It shows in particular Wheeldon’s skill at creating pas de deux. In the Royal Ballet program notes from its showing in 2011, Roslyn Sulcas writes of Wheeldon that ‘[He]—like his ballets—is both traditional and innovative, able to inhabit an older world while moving firmly forward towards the new.’ Here is what I wrote after seeing it, on a very different mixed bill program, in London in 2011.

Then I await Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet, exclusive to Melbourne in June and July, with anticipation mixed with trepidation. I was not a fan of his Bayadère, although I have loved some of his shorter works. But the word is that his R & J is ‘quite good’. Fingers crossed again.

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo Amitava Sarkar
Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: © Sarkar

As for the rest of the year, Brisbane will get Ratmansky’s Cinderella in February; Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake returns with seasons in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; a program called Symphony in C will run concurrently in Sydney with the Vitesse program, although it is not exactly clear as yet of what the Symphony in C program will consist; and Coppélia will be in Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of the year. I think this is the Peggy van Praagh/George Ogilvie production from 1979, but the media release is a little confusing. ‘Having first revisited Coppélia in 1979, the great choreographer re-invigorated it thirty years later with this joyful and sumptuous production.’ Who is that great choreographer? Not PVP who was not really the choreographer and who died anyway in 1990.

And for my Canberra readers, we won’t be seeing the Australian Ballet in 2016 in the national capital where we too pay taxes.

Michelle Potter, 23 September 2015 

Featured image: Dancer of the Australian Ballet in costume for Coppélia, 2015 (detail). Photo: © Justin Ridler

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler
  • Full details of the 2016 season are on the Australian Ballet’s website.

Nijinsky. Hamburg Ballet

26 August 2012, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky is an unusual work and defies easy categorisation. It is neither an abstract nor a narrative work. It’s more like a series of pictures that unfold throughout the work, building to a huge climax in the second part. Those pictures represent random events in the life of Vaslav Nijinsky and are really a series of flashbacks presented to reflect his diagnosed schizophrenic condition. They begin as he prepares to give his final dance performance—a Red Cross benefit show at the Hotel Suvretta in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland.* Neumeier uses this flashback technique to explore many different facets of Nijinsky’s life. We encounter him as a brother and a son, a dancer, a lover, a choreographer, a husband, and we are given impressions of the emotional states that accompany those roles in his life. Not only are these flashbacks random pictures, they also push us headlong into a maelstrom as they combine together, out of historical and any logical sequence and in a surreal fashion. Neumeier calls it a ‘biography of the soul’.

Alexandre Riabko, Anna Polikarpova and Otto Bubenicek in Nijinsky, Hamburg Ballet. Photo: © Holger Badekow

There are some thrilling moments of dancing. The trio between Nijinsky’s wife, Romola (Anna Polikarpova), Nijinsky (Alexandre Riabko) and Nijinsky as the seductive Faun (Otto Bubenicek), in which Neumeier explores facets of love and desire and life and art, is one such moment. The trio between Diaghilev, Nijinsky and another young dancer, where we see the destructive power of Diaghilev, is another. But for me the most powerful moments come in the second part of the work, when Nijinsky feels attacked from all sides—his schizophrenia is a reality, the Great War begins, his brother Stanislaw dies, Massine takes his place in Diaghilev’s life and activities and Romola has a liaison with his doctor. The pressure is relentless and we can feel it in so many ways. We see it when Nijinsky stands on a chair shouting out counts, as history tells us he did when his dancers struggled with Stravinsky’s music for Rite of Spring. We see it in the figure of Petrouchka (Lloyd Riggins), pale, wan and squashed emotionally as the drama continues around him. There is a remarkable performance from Aleix Martinez as Stanislaw, the brother, who dies as figures in military dress throw themselves about the stage. And how horrifying are those raucous moments when the dancers, still dressed as figures at war, humiliate Nijinsky as he struggles to cope with his world.

I wonder, however, how easy it was for the audience to understand on occasions who was who and what was happening. It does make a difference to one’s perception of the overall work to know something of Nijinsky’s choreography, and that of his sister Bronislava. There were many times when poses (albeit very well-known poses), from Jeux and Les noces for example, set the work in a particular context. Similarly costumes and props often gave significant clues. Nijinsky is clearly one of those ‘giving’ works that means more each time one sees it; but then not everyone has those opportunities. Neumeier knows his subject well and in fact has a large personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia and other documentation.** But does he expect the audience to have the same in depth knowledge? Does it matter that not everyone has the same understanding of Nijinsky’s world?

Nijinsky had the audience on its feet at the end of its first performance in Brisbane. It is rare, I believe, for an Australian audience to rise as one and give a standing ovation and I can remember only one other occasion in Australia when I have thought that I was witnessing, and was part of, a ‘real’ standing ovation rather than one that’s a bit like a reverse fall of dominoes—if you want to see the curtain calls you have to stand up because the person in front is blocking your view. Nijinsky is sometimes hard to follow. I was confused at times and it wasn’t my first viewing.*** But the quality of the production, especially its visual strength, some fine performances, and the absolutely compelling manner in which the work surges forward and then concludes by returning to its beginnings in the Hotel Suvretta, generates in the audience an equally compelling desire to stand up and cheer. I did.

Michelle Potter, 28 August 2012


*Ramsay Burt has an interesting essay ‘Alone into the world: reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’ in the recent publication On stage alone, which I reviewed earlier this month. Burt looks, amongst other things, at the Suvretta performance in the context of Nijinsky’s philosophical opposition to war.

**John Neumeier has an extended essay on his collection and his fascination with Nijinsky in the catalogue that accompanied the major exhibition Nijinsky (1889–1950) at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2000–2001. The catalogue also contains images and information about many of the Nijinsky items owned by Neumeier. See Martine Kahane, Nijinsky 1889–1950 (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2000).

***Nijinsky had its premiere in Hamburg in 2000. I was  lucky enough to catch it in 2002 when Hamburg Ballet was guesting in Paris. Looking back at that 2002 program it was interesting to see that some roles were, in 2012, still being danced by those who performed them in 2002.