In Toronto the home of the National Ballet of Canada is the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts. Taking to the stage last night and until November 30th is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. Premiered by the National Ballet of Canada in March 2013, it has quickly returned to the program for fall 2014; the Toronto audience just can’t seem to get enough.

Guillaume Côté as <i>Nijinsky</i> © Bruce Zinger
Guillaume Côté as Nijinsky
© Bruce Zinger

In a hotel ballroom in St Moritz, Switzerland, 1919, Vaslav Nijinsky performed for the last time. It is in this room that Neumeier’s Nijinsky begins, white and opulent and with a pianist playing on stage to greet the audience as they file in. The start of Nijinsky’s final solo, which he called his Wedding with God, causes the lights in the theatre to go out as we are pulled in to Nijinsky’s mad inner world.

Guillaume Côté is fully committed as Nijinsky. From his very first steps in the mad Wedding with God we feel the genius and madness of his character, one he has come to know well since his debut in the role in 2013. Throughout the performance Côté is a reliable presence, dancing with beauty, strength and conviction and often saving the show from many other lackluster elements. A hallucination of Diaghilev, responsible for Nijinsky’s immeasurable fame with the Ballets Russes – and also his former lover – draws Nijinsky into a spiral of memories, clashing high and low points of his life and career.

Nijinsky is rooted in realism. An emotional biography of the so-called “God of dance”, it can be difficult to follow for those less familiar with this iconic character of dance history. A massive cast fills an enormous array of roles as Nijinsky and those closest to him dance and mix with images of his past: his roles in Schéhérazade and L’Après-midi d’un Faune, his time with the Ballets Russes, the opening of his ballet Le Sacre du Printemps and his memories of World War I. A quick read of the synopsis is absolutely necessary to avoid being completely overwhelmed by the madness on stage, and even then it can be a struggle to follow.

Beyond the choreography, the performance had a number of technical problems. Throughout the first act the partnering was stiff and disappointing, particularly from Xiao Nan Yu in her role as Romola, which saw her dancing with Côté, Keiichi Hirano as the Golden Slave, and others. It felt under-rehearsed to the point where I feared someone getting hurt from missing a step or smashing into another dancer, both of which happened but luckily without causing any injuries. To make matters worse, costumes kept getting in the way, from the dress of the Nymph to Romola’s white gown to Petruschka’s hat.

Guillaume Côté in <i>Nijinsky</i> © Erik Tomasson
Guillaume Côté in Nijinsky
© Erik Tomasson
 Luckily the second act had some awesome moments that recovered the performance. Dylan Tedaldi brought a hush over the room in his chilling rendition of Stanislav, Nijinsky’s brain-damaged brother whose death was particularly hard to take. Jonathan Renna as Petruschka turned an uncooperative costume into an opportunity to further express his character, pulling on his hat in a show of strain and despair. The corps de ballet also shone, notably in an image of WWI where a stage full of men in soldier jackets made a powerful impression and again when an ensemble of couples in elegant dress twirled in melancholy.

The loyal fans of the National Ballet of Canada gave the performance a standing ovation. This being my first impression of the company, I wasn’t as quick to get on my feet. As Nijinsky is in itself a loaded show, any errors are glaring, interrupting your focus and forcing you to catch up with the sometimes tumultuous pace of the piece. Individual dancers, Côté, Tedaldi, Hirano, Renna, were definitely standout. Overall though, I highly doubt this was among the company’s strongest performances.

**111