October 15, 2017

The Theatre du Champs-Elysées: Nijinsky

Scene from Nijinksy, representing The Afternoon of a Faun

There was a standing ovation for the ballet Nijinsky, an exciting début to this season’s impressive lineup of symphonies and dance performances at theThéâtre des Champs-Elysées, The ballet follows the iconic early 20th century dancer's rise as the muse and lover of Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, to his eventual tragic descent into mental illness.

The Théatre des Champs Elysées hosted the Ballets Russes for its first season in 1913, staging the première of the Rite of Spring, with avant garde movements and music that shocked the Paris audience. The jeers and catcalls were so deafening Nijinsky stood on a stool in the wings shouting to the dancers to carry on and counting the beat as Stravinsky hung onto his coat. There was an allusion to this historic scene at the very same theater just over a century later with the performance by the Ballet National du Canada of Nijinsky, a piece created by American choreographer John Neumeier in 2000.

It's a clever pastiche of his personal story, hallucinations and flashbacks, as well as his most famous roles in a short but spectacular career (ArlequinSpectre de la roseScheherazadePetrushka, L'Oiseau du feu).  Mixed in with these tableaux are elements of dance history and costumes inspired by the originals.  The music comprises works by Chopin, Schumann, Rimski-Korsakov, and Shostakovich, under the direction of David Briskin of the Orchestra Prométhée.  

Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 to 1950) was the son of two Polish dancers.  He became wildly famous internationally for his virtuosity, intensity and athleticism.  He could dance en pointe, a rare skill among male dancers, and was admired for his seemingly gravity-defying leaps and androgynous body, with large thighs and delicate arms.  He joined the Ballets Russes in 1909, becoming lovers with Diaghilev, 18 years his senior.  An impresario, Diaghilev conquered Europe and the world with his Ballets Russes, a creative movement that drew together the greatest musical, theatrical and artistic talents of the day.

A lead dancer, Nijinsky expanded his repertoire and experimented with choreography.  One of his most famous works, L'Après-midi d’un faune (1912) was inspired by Greek vases and Egyptian frescoes. The ballet introduced new concepts of two-dimensionality, stylized postures and pauses, and even more shocking at the time, a sexual scene over a scarf.  This dance's odd movements and steamy sensuality permeate the Ballet du Canada production as well.  Contemporaries in the arts thought Nijinsky was strangely inarticulate and inept at teaching his dances, and perhaps even mad as well as a genius.  They turned out to be right.

In 1913, Nijinsky married Hungarian Romola de Pulszky while on tour in South America, with whom he had two daughters.  The marriage caused a break with Diaghilev, who angrily dismissed him from the Ballets Russes, leaving Nijinsky deprived of opportunities to dance and under mental strain. After being interned in Hungary during World War I, he moved to Switzerland, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919. He was in and out of asylums over the next 30 years, never dancing again; but he remains a legend of ballet and source of fascination.

There are other exciting productions at theThéâtre des Champs-Elysées coming up this season, so take advantage of your WICE member discount, and enjoy some of the most renowned performers of our generation, in the tradition of this theater. Upcoming performances include the American diva Renée Fleming, a Mozart Gala, and the Orchestre National de France--so take a look and book!

Post by Elizabeth Bouché

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