Hamburg Ballet’s Epic Nijinski (review)

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's "Nijinski".

It was a packed house at the Harris Theater last night for the opening night of the Hamburg Ballet‘s epic ballet Nijinsky.┬áThe curtain was already up as the audience began to fill the theater, viewing a stage filled with a grand set depicting a formal ballroom complete with white columned second-level seating, a giant modern chandelier and a live pianist playing. A lone wooden chair sits in the middle of the ballroom waiting as guests arrive talking and laughing aloud. Before a step is danced, it is clear, this is not your typical ballet.

The ballet, choreographed in 2000 by Artistic Director and Midwesterner (he was born in Milwaukee, WI) John Neumeier, begins with Vaslav Nijinski’s final public performance in a hotel in Switzerland in 1919. Extensive program notes reveal that the dancer is already quite mad with schizophrenia by then and the ballet dives into his mind’s “thoughts, memories and hallucinations” during this last solo. Memories of his lover Sergei Diaghilev, his marriage and subsequent betrayal by his wife, plus characters he danced and choreographed all morph into a wild, confusing tale of love, sadness and madness. A Harlequin, a poet, a slave, a rose and a faun. With all of the character’s he’s ever danced or choreographed all dancing on stage at once, it makes you feel…well, crazy.

Act II dives even deeper into his mad mind combining his scandalous ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (which Joffrey Ballet will be performing next season) with the first World War making a haunting and frightening mental journey. The score of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 adds to the dramatic climax. Neumeier creates the perfect blend of manic dancing with subtle sadness. On a touching note, even though Nijinksi’s wife, Romola, had broken his heart by cheating on him, she is the one who is there throughout to care for him. As the ballet ends, we’re transported back into the ballroom where the solo is ending, but now all the characters are represented maniacally laughing with the sets askew and distorted. It’s not a feel-good ballet, but it is definitely something you want/need to see.

The large cast (I counted close to 60 dancers on stage at one point) was extremely talented, but Alexandre Riabko as Nijinski brilliantly stole the show. His charismatic and vulnerable portrayal of the troubled artist that had him dancing most of the 2 1/2 hour ballet, was intriguing, inspiring and heartbreaking. Dazzling tours and jumps with pristine technique melt into a contorted, catatonic pile on the floor and back again. Other stand outs were Helene Bouchet (his wife), Carsten Jung (Diaghilev), Alexandr Trusch (Spectre de la Rose), Thiago Bordin (Golden Slave) and Edvin Ravazov (Father).

The final performance of Hamburg Ballet’s Nijinski is tonight at the Harris Theater. For tickets, call 312.334.7777 or visit

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