John Neumeier’s Nijinsky must be one of the best-dressed ballets ever seen at City Center, especially given the fact that it’s about a massive mental breakdown. Then again, it’s Nijinsky’s breakdown, so it takes place among the modernists of the early twentieth century and their great-looking outfits—chic turbans, sleek evening gowns, beautifully cut practice tunics, and some fabulous designs from the Ballet Russe. Subtlety, depth, and, Lord knows, choreography are not among Neumeier’s strengths, but he sure knows clothes.
And he chose a peerless subject. Nijinsky’s story is one of the most compelling in the history of ballet, not to mention the cinema-ready chronicles of mad genius. The most phenomenal performer of his time, he was also a choreographer of such vision that nearly a century later his ballets still look avant-garde. What’s more, he was glamorously bisexual and lost his mind at 30. Van Gogh was good, Virginia Woolf was good, but let’s face it, you can’t put either of them onstage dressed only in a few rosebuds. Nijinsky had it all.
Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, has created a spectacular kinetic collage here, meant to suggest Nijinsky’s crazed memories during his last performance. Neumeier himself designed the wonderful costumes, décor, and lighting, and his fine company carried off the acting and the dancing admirably.
But as the people in Nijinsky’s life throng the stage, and quotes from the ballets flicker into view and disappear, chaos reigns. At one point I couldn’t figure out whether Nijinsky was partnering his mother, his sister, or Tamara Karsavina. On the other hand, his famous relationship with Diaghilev, the Ballet Russe impresario, develops quite graphically, though history had not recorded Diaghilev as a cute blond hunk until now. Toward the end, Nijinsky simply launches into one mad scene after another, while hordes of dancers stampede around him and World War I breaks out. Meanwhile, Neumeier never does provide any substantive choreography for his hero except the dance equivalent of shrieks and groans. Never mind: If this ballet had done nothing but send me back to Richard Buckle’s great biography of Nijinsky, it would have been well worth the time spent in the theater. It did, and it was.