For this performance of Gauthier Dance, I decided, for no special reason, to arrive extra early. I was quite surprised to see, as I approached the theatre, the place already buzzing like a beehive: all three evenings were sold out. This is an excellent start for the Stuttgart based company, performing in Berlin for the first time.

Rosario Guerra and Luke Prunty in Goecke's Nijinsky
© Regina Brocke Klein

At the start, director Eric Gauthier introduces Vaslav Nijinsky’s life and work. A key figure in dance, Nijinsky is not as well known by the general public as the great Russian 'defectors' Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, yet he is the one who created (for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes) a work so scandalous that it caused a riot in a Parisian theatre in 1913 (this was the Rite of Spring, set to an Igor Stravinsky score, for the Ballets Russes). So complex, innovative and thought-provoking was the work that it disappeared from the stage in a pre-video recording era. The Sacre has become a sacred monster for generation of choreographers, each attempting their own version. This is, mostly, how Nijinsky’s legacy is remembered. A whole dance on his life is an unusual format, not that his life falls short of episodes to be depicted, From his excellent technique to his wonderful interpretation, he was an outstanding performer, and he also had an intense personal life. As a choreographer, he produced thrilling works such as Afternoon of a Faun (1912, also for the Ballets Russes). In Marco Goecke’s work, Nijinsky’s life is divided into three parts. We see his life at the dance academy in pre-revolutionary Russia, with echoing images of swans and dragonflies (an homage to Anna Pavlova, another major figure in dance at the time, and her solo The Dragonfly, in 1905). We also see a young Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballet Russes – the company that made Nijinsky an international star – and, for some time, Nijinsky's lover. In the next part we see Nijinsky in his most famous roles such as the erotically charged Faun, the innocent marionette Petrushka (1911) and as a seducing spirit in Le Spectre de la Rose (1911). Goecke makes clear references to these works. The section ends with his meeting his future wife the socialite Romola de Pulszky in 1913. The third section deals with his slow descent into mental illness. He eventually died in 1950.

David Rodriguez and Garazi Perez Oloriz in Goecke's Nijinski
© Regina Brocke Klein

This tribute to the greatest dancer and choreographer at the wake of modernism starts with all of Goecke’s signature elements: a barely lit stage, bare chested men executing trembling and hectic upper body movements, grimacing and making growling and snarling sounds. The intense game of light and shadow emphasises the muscles of the dancers, creating a landscape of forms in which each's individuality is lost. The old microphone in the middle of the stage also allows voice recordings and hints at the power of the media during the advent of Nazism. The dancers have done a wonderful job. A special mention goes to Rosario Guerra’s interpretation of Nijinsky. The choreography is taxing with extremely quick changes of rhythm, especially in synchronous group sequences. Still, the work is flat. There is something that prevents me from feeling empathy for Nijinsky, despite his growing anxiety and mental instability. The surplus of hectic movements and grimaces make these very gestures seem empty. Their power is lost on me as I watch him drawing circles in a sanatorium. Paradoxically, I found the simplicity of the very last image – when he bows as the light grows dim – the most touching. Despite not having been able to dance for decades, he remains a dancer at heart, who danced in his mind and not his body. Goecke is an extremely skilful choreographer – this can be seen in the use of rhythms in his group composition – and the work manages to give a good summary of Nijinsky’s life but at least for me, his internal struggle does not come through.

Gauthier Dance is a company not to be missed (next time they will be in Berlin, or anywhere else they will tour to). The dancers are incredibly skilled and expressive. Goecke's highly crafted works are very touching, and even though I prefer his more abstract works, Nijinsky is an enjoyable and thorough introduction to a period of dance history that I recommend seeing.