The house lights in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House remain on and audience stragglers seat themselves while actors enter the stage sets behind the drawn curtains of the stage. The ballroom of a hotel in St Moritz has been recreated on stage. Stiff backed chairs line the walls with their late 19th-century woodwork. A pianist enters and sits at his instrument, women and men enter the room, elegantly dressed, chatting and laughing.

Thus opens the National Ballet of Canada’s performance of John Neumeier’s heartfelt and nostalgic tribute to the great modernist of dance, Vaslav Nijinsky. Sponsored by San Francisco Ballet and presented as their Program 6, Nijinsky is a rich montage of the historical and the fantastic, as Neumeier undertook to recreate the mind of the dancer at the moment when his madness overwhelmed him and before he disappeared from dance and into the series of psychiatric hospitals that housed him for the next thirty years.

As the opera house lights dimmed, Nijinsky, poignantly danced by Guillaume Côté, swept into the onstage ballroom, wrapped in a white kimono. From that moment on, Côté performed Nijinsky as a man apart, abstract and theatrical, isolated and despairing. He proceeded across the landing stairs and to the center of the stage, where he dropped the kimono, revealing himself in black trousers and shirt. When he began to dance his movements were angular short phrases punctuated by milliseconds of stillness. He stomped, slapped the ground, collapsed, forced his fist into his mouth. These movements, which strove for some abrupt realism, were interspersed with brisés, attitude turns and jetés. And his radical brusque movements were like shattered glass among the ballet steps’ graceful flourishes.

Suddenly the lights dimmed and took on a bluish cast, and we entered a world hovering between memory and fantasy.

The various roles identified with Nijinsky – the Spirit of the Rose (danced by Naoya Ebe), the Golden Slave (by Francesco Gabriele Frola), Harlequin from Carnaval (Naoya Ebe), the Young Man in Jeux (Skylar Campbell), and the Faun (Francesco Gabriele Frola) in L’après-midi d’un faune – appeared and disappeared in a flurry of corps de ballet dancers who flooded the stage, sometimes in illusory and Sylphide–like costumes and other times garbed in the Arabian exoticism of Scheherazade.

Almost all of the choreography that Nijinsky himself devised in his attempts to create a modernist and new form of dance is lost, only the choreography for L’après-midi d’un faune remains. Neumeier’s choreography in Nijinsky’s dream-like sections used many of the poses seen in photographs of Nijinsky: the arms folded over the head, the downward glance, the languorous curve of the back, the heavy muscularity of his legs suggesting stunning leaps and, above all, a slinky, feral and heightened eroticism. These gestures were offset – perhaps held in place – by Neumeier’s almost brainy approach to the choreography and his complex onstage structuring of the dancer’s history.

What can be said of these roles, whether or not Nijinsky originated the choreography, is that they border on the otherworldly. Seeing them all on stage makes it believable that Nijinsky’s facility for subsiding into such phantasmal roles was perhaps a feature of his schizophrenia.

Finally, the ballroom sets fall away, replaced by a huge circle of light surrounded by darkness. We are left in the confined space of Nijinsky’s solitary and stark madness.

A shipboard scene rewrites the meeting of Nijinsky and Romola de Pulszky, danced by the lovely Heather Ogden. The interweaving of Nijinsky, Romola, whom he would later marry, and the Faun is especially persuasive, personifying the dancer’s sexuality as both ambiguous and ambivalent. Evan McKie performed an elegant and unrelenting interpretation of Nijinsky’s mentor, lover and nemesis, Serge Diaghilev. 

Set to martial sounding music by Shostakovich, the second act suggests a belief found in Nijinsky’s diary, that the First World War was a factor in the dancer’s disorientation and final madness. Throughout the act, the corps begins to slowly assume the jackets and movement of soldiers. The character of Petruschka appears among the military chaos as Nijinsky’s fantasy double, despairing and broken. The implication that Petruschka and the evil Puppetmaster who destroys him was a balletic analog of Nijinsky and Diaghilev also falls close to the mark.

Neumeier has a real talent for stepping easily between the interior world of individual fantasy and the exterior world of reality, and weaving several complex threads into a unified performance. He creates a theatrical form that exists somewhere between the narrative and the abstract; one that favors the geometric over the lushly lyrical. His Nijinsky debuted in San Francisco in 2013 with the Hamburg Ballet, it was good to see it again with the full Canadian company at the San Francisco Opera House.