Vaslav Nijinsky — a great, troubled, self-destructive artist who spent the end of his life in psychiatric hospitals — was the world’s most famous dancer a century ago.
His shocking story is the subject of “Nijinsky,” a bold, full-length ballet by choreographer John Neumeier, the Wisconsin-born dancer who has headed the Hamburg Ballet for 40 years.
Neumeier, 74, brings his troupe to the War Memorial Opera House this week to perform the piece, which premiered in 2000, in the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2.
In a recent phone interview, Neumeier said he was happy to be returning to The City, and called his connection to the San Francisco Ballet and artistic director Helgi Thomasson “important.”
In 2008, he choreographed “Yondering” for the company’s ballet school. The San Francisco Ballet production of his dark, psychological “The Little Mermaid,” based on the fairy tale, was also a great success.
Also controversial and acclaimed, “Nijinsky” features scenery, lighting and costumes all by Neumeier, who has been possessed by the subject.
“It began with a fascination with the person and artist, continued as research through my entire life. The subject has never disappointed me. It is a puzzle which has still not been solved for me,” he says.
Calling the dance a “present-tense work,” Neumeier warns audiences not to expect a straightforward biography.
“This ballet is not a documentary. Instead, it is fragmentary, juxtaposing different moments in time, juxtaposing the relationship of the people in his life, sometimes reversing their identity,” he says.
He points to one scene on a ship where Nijinsky meets Romola, his wife, and she sees him, but at the same time she sees the Faun, one of Nijinsky’s signature roles (from the scandalous 1912 dance “The Afternoon of a Faun,” a piece he also choreographed).
“In other words, her fascination with him is really a sensual attraction to a very sensual man, which he depicted in the form of the Faun. It’s part of the technique of the ballet that these things are shown simultaneously,” he explains.
In “Afternoon of a Faun,” Nijinsky mimed masturbation using a scarf. In “Nijinsky,” Neumeier has his dancer use a tennis racket for the same purpose, in a fantasy love triangle between Nijinsky, Serge Diaghilev and Léonide Massine; the scene relates to the story behind the creation of the 1913 ballet “Jeux.”
A New York Times review of “Nijinsky” called it “an annotators’ dream, kind of ‘This is Your Life,’ as characters from Nijinsky’s biography and art intersect. Realism yields to fantasy in the work, which tries to explore both Nijinsky’s creative spirit and inner demons.”