A ballet legend finely drawn: Ballett Zürich in Marco Goecke’s Nijinsky

Opera House Zürich
March 17, 2019

Maggie Foyer

Marco Goeke’s Nijinsky is a dense eighty minutes of dance drama replete with snapshots of a momentous era in dance history. In these brief moments, incisive and memorable, we are given a keen insight into the man and the artist.

Goeke’s distinctive frenzied gestural choreography is well suited to the legendary dancer whose talent was embodied in an unstable disposition. This is skilfully portrayed, notably in the final moments as Esteban Berlanga kneels on the stage desperately drawing endless circles. He then bows out, still the elegant dancer despite his long absence from the stage, as the voiceover intones tersely, “Vaslav Nijinsky, 1950.”

William Moore as Diaghilev with Jan Caiser as Nijinskyin Nijinsky by Marco GoeckePhoto Carlos Quezada
William Moore as Diaghilev with Jan Caiser as Nijinsky
in Nijinsky by Marco Goecke
Photo Carlos Quezada

Nijinsky was originally written for Gautier Dance in 2016, where the work premiered at their more intimate house in Stuttgart. While some of the fine detail is difficult to catch in the larger setting of the Zürich Opera House, it retains the thrust of his turbulent life. Berlanga, in his debut performance gives a thrilling interpretation articulating his technique to the expressive needs and capturing the fine detail of the character. Details flash by but the essence stays.

Opening on a student photo of the young man with enigmatic eyes, Goeke sets a chronological timeline as the Russian dancer meets Diaghilev, the man who was to shape his destiny. Other characters, his mother, his wife and his friends feature, as do the metaphysical forces of Terpsichore, muse of dance, and the world of art. His hunger and passion for dance are evident leaving a bittersweet nostalgia and sadness for the dancer who had so much more to give.

Jan Caiser as Nijinsky with Irmina Kopaczynska as his motherin Nijinsky by Marco GoeckePhoto Carlos Quezada
Jan Caiser as Nijinsky with Irmina Kopaczynska as his mother
in Nijinsky by Marco Goecke
Photo Carlos Quezada

The characters are constructed through finely wrought choreographic detail. The lighting and costume palette is dark and sombre. It is beautifully lit, foregrounding the lean, defined physicality of the dancers. The costumes are subtly styled and ungendered, again fitting the nuances of Nijinsky’s persona. His iconic roles are identified in the pink petals of Spectre, a generic clown’s ruff for the tragic Petrushka, while his prodigious artistry is immortalised in the Faun’s sculptured hands.

Diaghilev is a brilliantly crafted character. His arrogance borders on the comic but his life is also tinged with tragedy and William Moore, caricatured with only half a moustache, catches all the gradations. Bristling with self-importance he stands centre stage as minions serve his needs, but in a private moment he imitates the dancers’ ports de bras, and you wonder if this great man, surrounded by so much grace and beauty, did not envy the dancers?

Katja Wünsche as Terpsichore in Nijinsky by Marco GoeckePhoto Carlos Quezada
Katja Wünsche as Terpsichore in Nijinsky by Marco Goecke
Photo Carlos Quezada

Goeke invests the two principal characters with rich inner lives. He hints at the forms of love and control their incestuous relationship encountered in sensual duets and superb solos. When the bond is shattered, Nijinsky celebrates his freedom by demolishing Diaghilev’s tall hat with childish glee but cut adrift his fragile mental state deteriorates. Diaghilev’s demonic hold, that would rightly be decried in our modern world, seems to have facilitated the nurturing of this unique talent. But we will never know.

Irmina Kopaczynska playing Nijinsky’s mother, gives a sensitive performance as a woman unable to help her child while Mélanie Borel, as his wife, Romola, suggests a fragile, tragic figure unequipped to provide the support he needed when divorced from his theatre family. Katja Wünsche as Terpsichore connects with the characters, inspiring Nijinsky or allowing Diaghilev to strum his fingers through the lyre emblazoned on her chest. Always a powerful presence, she finds the right intensity bringing a touch of warmth to a mythical character.

The ballet teems with pictures that stay branded on the memory, even if the meaning is elusive or ambiguous: Diaghilev enveloping Nijinsky in a cloud of aerosol mist, the smoke suggesting his shifting mental uncertainties or the misery of Nijinsky’s bare hunched back as he lights matches to give brief illumination in the descending darkness. It was a riveting evening of potent images and memorable performances.