Neumeier's ‘Nijinsky’ a tour de force 

click to enlarge High drama: Alexandre Riabko, left, and Aleix Martínez are stunning in Hamburg Ballet’s production of John Neumeier's “Nijinsky” at the War Memorial Opera House. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • High drama: Alexandre Riabko, left, and Aleix Martínez are stunning in Hamburg Ballet’s production of John Neumeier's “Nijinsky” at the War Memorial Opera House.

Shame on local ballet fans who don’t get to the War Memorial Opera House by Tuesday to see Hamburg Ballet perform John Neumeier's sumptuous, riveting “Nijinsky” on San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2.

Neimeier takes a layered approach to communicate Nijinsky's life (1890-1950), which, sadly, seemed to be the stereotype of the tortured artist.

Roles that rocketed him to stardom with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes are performed by various dancers (easily discernable with costumes inspired by Leon Bakst originals), often onstage simultaneously.

Leading figures in Nijinsky's life – his brother Stanislav,  wife Romola and impresario Serge Diaghilev – float on and off stage, often partnering Nijinsky or in solos, in dream-like sequences.

Music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Chopin and Schumann, familiar to many viewers, works a subtle, dramatic magic.

Alexandre Riabko – as Nijinsky the real man, artist, muse, lover of Diaghilev – is both sizzlingly sensual and sensitive. His virility seems boundless, while his heart is visibly tender and raw.

The role – in which Neumeier demonstrates Nijinsky's "inner" and "outer" worlds and his public persona vs. interior, mental realm – is beyond demanding. And the choreography is just as challenging as the drama.

Riabko, with his svelte figure and lithe limbs, is mesmerizing. He can start and stop a whirlwind momentum in a flash. With just a twist of the torso, he references a famous Nijinsky role, such as the Faun, and then returns to flying leaps or multiple turns.

Nijinsky’s older brother Stanislav (diagnosed with mental illness and put in an asylum when Vaslav was a young teen) is performed by Aleix Martinez, a nimble powerhouse who danced the frenzied choreography with aplomb. His second act solo makes Giselle's "mad scene" look like a cake walk.

But not all the choreography is maniacal. "Nijinsky" showcases Neumeier's unparalleled finesse for elegant and sensuous pas de deux choreography.

Hamburg Ballet's dancers boast exceptional technical and dramatic prowess. The particularly strong male corps displays its potent powers as soldiers during "The War" in the second act.

Nijinsky's career essentially ended with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. According to dance scholar and historian Joan Acocella, Nijinsky gave what would be his last public performance, at just 28, in South America in 1919, with Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin.

Rubinstein was moved to tears. Nijinsky then left for Switzerland with Romola to start mental treatment, and would be in and out of hospitals and asylums until his death in 1950.

Hamburg Ballet's ‘Nijinsky’
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today and Tuesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20 to $310
Contact: (415) 865-2000 or


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