NIJINSKY, choreographed by John Neumeier (National Ballet of Canada). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). To March 8. $25-$239. 416-345-9595. See listing. Rating: NNNN
It takes chutzpah to choreograph and perform a piece about Vaslav Nijinsky, the legendary Ballets Russes artist who revolutionized ballet and died in 1950 after struggling for decades with schizophrenia.
John Neumeier's Nijinsky leaps to the challenge and lands with astonishing grace and resonance. It's a psychologically and narratively complex work that conjures up the man and artist through bold choices, fascinating juxtapositions and some punishingly difficult choreography.
At a Swiss hotel - beautifully evoked by Neumeier's sets (he also designed the costumes and lighting) - a disturbed, white-robed Nijinsky (Guillaume Côté on opening night) is about to dance what will be his final performance. Soon the past swirls into the present as he's joined onstage by characters he helped create or make famous: the slave in Schéhérazade (Keiichi Hirano), the Harlequin from Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose (both played by Naoya Ebe).
Also with him are major figures in his life, including Serge Diaghilev, his impresario, mentor and lover (Jirí Jelinek), and Romola (Heather Ogden), who would become his wife.
Neumeier eschews a linear plot for an intuitive, dreamlike logic, and he's chosen some appropriate scores to set to dance (vividly played by the National orchestra). Rimsky-Korsakov's sensuous Schéhérazade dominates the first act, which concerns itself with personal and artistic expression, while Shostakovich's jagged and disturbing Symphony 11 takes over the second act, which shows Nijinsky's inner turmoil set against the violent backdrop of World War I.
Some of Neumeier's choreography and imagery in the second half feel repetitive, and you'll need to read the synopsis to figure out the identity of some secondary figures. But overall the work is a staggering achievement, mixing layers of art, biography and symbol (Nijinsky was obsessed with circles) into something fresh and new.
There are too many fine performances to single out, but special mention of course goes to Côté, who's required to be a comic tragedian, a conflicted queer man and an artist going mad, all while dancing steps that start off difficult and end up excruciating.
After executing some of these brutal but dramatically suggestive moves, he must go home with bruises. Who said great art was easy?