Marco Goecke’s choreography has its own unique dynamic. Shivering, fluttering, weaving, cutting are but some of the descriptive adjectives that apply to select movements in his work. And whilst this Nijinsky ballet was premiered in Stuttgart in 2016, it only recently celebrated its Swiss première in Zurich, to sublime music by both Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy.

Jan Casier (Nijinsky), W. Chen and R Mambelli (Two Petrushka Dancers) in Nijinsky
© Carlos Quezada

The ballet is neatly structured. In ten sequences, key characters in Nijinsky’s life make their appearances, first among them being a cocoon-wrapped, ominous figure that represents the artist in search of himself. Then, as Terpsichore, Muse of Dance, soloist Katja Wünsche reinforces the anomaly of jagged, digital movements that are the Goecke trademark. Nijinsky’s Polish mother, Matka (Irmina Kopaczynska), with whom he lived before being admitted to the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, also has a noble turn, and another of the vignettes represents a figure in the dancer’s life too often glossed over: Romola, Nijinsky’s wife and the mother of his two children. In that role, the gifted Mélanie Borel imparts empathy as her character relishes the intertwined postures that suggest the ballet’s only heterosexual coupling. 

Pivotal to the Goecke ballet is the tortured, if legendary, relationship the dancer shared with Sergei Diaghilev, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes. Goecke’s work also includes citations from Le Sacre du printemps (1913) and L’Après midi d’un Faune (1912), ballets that Nijinsky choreographed to scores by Igor Stravinsky, and in which he — in the lead roles – rendered his audiences dumbstruck, awed or furious. Yet as a hotel guest in St. Moritz in 1919, having confessed that he, “the little pony”, was tired, Nijinsky gave his last solo performance. He was committed to a sanitorium later that year. Given that, Marco Goecke’s tribute ends with Nijinsky as a psychiatric patient, a broken man doubled over on the floor and scratching out the drawings he worked on up until the time of his death in 1950. The long asylum sequence impressed that human tragedy upon us, although the last twenty minutes of the ballet had little in the way of innovation that hadn’t already been explored.

Jan Casier (Nijinsky) and Mélanie Borel (Romola) in Nijinsky
© Carlos Quezada

The ballet’s programme notes included a telling note from Nijinsky’s diaries: “I think less, and therefore understand everything I feel. Rather than the body’s understanding, I am the body’s feelings (made) incarnate. I am the body. I am feeling. Rather than God, I am Man.” Dancing the lead role, Jan Casier captured that sentiment and far more than excelled. His body was extraordinarily malleable and his expression, consistently convincing. The immense catalogue of movements he had committed to memory seemed to come as naturally to him as his own breath, which, when used as part of the choreography, was also compelling. Interestingly, the collective dancers also talk and shout periodically in the ballet, and for any who could hear it, Nijinsky’s tragic biography is also read from a backstage location at one point.

Apart from two pairs of dragonflies’ wings pinned to dancers Mélissa Ligurgo and Jesse Fraser’s backs, and the fur-collared overcoat worn by William Moore in his superb portrayal of Diaghilev, costuming by Michaela Springer was plain enough to resemble the dancers’ daily work-out garb, and her dark stage flats were equally modest. At one point, the many rose petals that fell from the heights alluded to Michel Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose, the ballet which premiered in Monte Carlo in 1919 and starred Nijinsky in the leading role. The contrast of the petals' bright colour on stage was appreciated, as were the many shifts in lighting (Udo Haberland) from dim to strident, such that the stage echoed the onset of Nijinsky’s psychic trauma.

Irmina Kopaczynska (Matka) in Nijinsky
© Carlos Quezada

Under conductor Pavel Baleff, the Philharmonia Zürich handsomely performed some much-treasured scores, and soloist Adrian Oetiker’s emotive renditions of piano works by Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy perfectly complemented the orchestra’s wealth of sound. In sum, while Nijinsky focuses on an exceptional dancer through the stages of his life, Marco Goecke takes his tribute far beyond just a biographical resumé. Indeed, his ballet addresses fundamental questions about the magic of art and the time and efforts given its pursuit, to say nothing of the terrific price creative people often pay to achieve it successfully.