Vaslav Nijinsky’s personal struggle with both genius and mental illness is a classic dramatic paradigm, cliché for a reason, but Company Chordelia’s study of his life is both delicate and physical, avoiding the usual traps of dance biographies.
The Russian ballet maestro, born in Russia of Polish descent in 1889, reinvented not only what dance could do, but the role of male dancers. Regarding himself as a Modernist with arms and legs jutting out like spikes, his movements and leaps which made him seem airborne emulated the burgeoning European arts movements like Dada; androgynous at a time when it was considered controversial to be such.
Two men play Nijinsky in different time periods—James Bryce as the contemplative narrator in older age and Darren Brownlie, the leaping, elfin younger version. Their respective solo performances are subtle, and occasionally they dance together like two halves of a not-quite whole. Bryce controls Brownlie’ s limp body like a puppet—head placed here, back arched just so … a perfect metaphor for the expendable nature of the young body in a short dance career. When the two men waltz together, it is a broken waltz of the fragmented self—they collapse in an awkward embrace. Janis Hart’s beautiful Pierrot-like puppet is brought into the space, when words and poses fail to adequately convey emotions. Young Nijinsky dances with the puppet, cradling it in his arms like a child, but the puppet goes limp, as spent as him. Eventually, the puppet is set between the duo on a chair and never alluded to again, like the ugly taboo of mental health problems: a constant reminder of Nijinsky’s unravelling.
Michael Daviot’s text is both wry and sorrowful, with a symmetry like poetry. The repetition of language reaffirms the prosaic routines of taking medication. Many scenes are portentous, soured later with hindsight, like floral bouquets for premieres becoming like funeral wreaths. Lilies and roses are strewn about the stage in fits of madness. The wide-eyed faun of “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune” has become wounded. Kally Lloyd-Jones’ choreography integrates some of Nijinsky’s most famous pieces into her own lines, and she shows how his need for absolute perfection during rehearsals at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg confirm his fragile mental state. Again, again, again, like an obsession, the repeated hand pointing, body frozen but brain never still.
From the success of 1911’s Petrushka to the riots of “Le Sacre du Printemps” in 1913, where he watches, vulnerable from the sidelines, as the audience tear up the seats, Brownlie brings layers of meaning to his every gesture. He buys into his own myth-making, believing himself to be omnipotent. Extreme bouts of narcissism (“I am God! I am everywhere! I am everything!”) give way to the lowest lows, in a struggle with schizophrenia which lasts thirty years. He slips in and out of comas. Even symptoms, like stomach cramp and insomnia, have an individual position of their own within the choreography. And Bryce’s slow tentative shuffle across the floor is quietly heartbreaking: he moves with baby steps where he once walked proud and mighty.
The pursuit of perfection is to prove his undoing, and the voices in his head get louder. A straitjacket is tied onto Young Nijinsky, only for him to escape and roll on the floor, arms extended in brittle defiance: this time, the leaps are not a routine, they are an attempt to escape the restrictions placed upon him by a brutal system, which stigmatises and labels him. The last jumps are as moving as they are pitiful—a stark reminder of how the body can fail even a genius.