Australian Ballet Nijinsky Jake Mangakahia - photo by Kate LongleyEven for those who have never seen a ballet, the very word, Nijinsky, conjures up visions of an exotic dancer reputed to have been the greatest male ballet dancer in the world. That is, of course, until Rudolf Nureyev came along.

John Neumeier has had a lifelong fascination with Nijinsky, and is reputed to have the largest collection of Nijinsky memorabilia in the world. In 2000 he created this marvellous full-length ballet in homage to the Nijinsky legend, presenting aspects of Nijinsky’s short, incandescent career as a virtuosic dancer who dazzled audiences with his dancing and several extraordinary ballets which scandalised a generation, but are still danced around the world to this day .

For this work Neumeier has utilised the talents of seven different dancers to represent Nijinsky in the kaleidoscopic whirl of events which ultimately led to his descent into madness.

At this performance the central role of Vaslav Nijinsky was danced by Jake Mangakahia in a passionate performance which drew cheers from the matinee audience. Though his dancing is accomplished, and his interpretation promising, Mangakahia, despite his brave performance, has not yet developed the stage presence necessary to allow his characterisation to dominate the stage as it must.

Representing various other Nijinsky incarnations, Cristiano Martino was particularly impressive, as the Golden Slave from Scheherazade and the Faun in L’Apres-midi d’un faune, Andrew Wright provided an excellent interpretation as Petrouchka, and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson registered strongly as both the Harlequin from Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose from Spectre de la rose.

Amber Scott looked ravishing, danced superbly and conveyed beautifully the anguish of Nijinsky’s wife, Romola, stage-managing his last performance, and shielding Nijinsky through the  confusion of his approaching decline.

Dimity Azoury also impressed in several sequences with her confident dancing and striking appearance as Nijinsky’s mother, while Robyn Hendricks was beautifully cast as the ballerina Tamara Karsavina. Francois-Eloi Lavignac gave an eye-catching performance as Nijinsky’s brother, Stanislav, especially in his abandoned solo in the second act.

The striking score for Nijinsky incorporates works from of a variety of composers, among them Schumann, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich. The opening of the ballet is set in a salon, prior to Nijinsky’s final performance, in which a pianist (Laurence Matheson) is playing Chopin on a grand piano. After his wife Romola settles the guests, Nijinsky, accompanied by the pianist, begins to dance an eccentric solo to the music of Schumann.

A rare on-stage appearance by Artistic Director, David McAllister, clearly enjoying himself as one of the salon guests, provided a delightful fillip to this scene. Eventually the full orchestra, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, takes over, heralding a giddy whirl of thrillingly danced incidents, depicting moments in Nijinsky’s life.

Music by Shostakovich was the perfect accompaniment to the events in the more dramatic second act, which are performed in an abstract setting featuring two huge neon circles. A striking sequence for the large ensemble of male dancers, clad in trunks and army tunics, depicted the advance of the war, was so strongly danced, that it prompted the thought that perhaps a revival of Spartacus might be on the horizon.

Nijinsky is a marvellous ensemble ballet, which also places strong acting demands on its cast. While very well danced on this occasion, many of the principals seemed so absorbed in executing the demanding choreography correctly, that their characterisations often slipped away. When both demands are achieved in equal measure this ballet will provide an exceptional ballet experience.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Wednesday 16 November 2016 – 1.30pm
Season continues to 28 November 2016

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Image: Jake Mangakahia as Vaslav Nijinsky in the Australian Ballet production of Nijinsky – photo by Kate Longley

Review: Bill Stephens