Guillaume Côté, Heather Ogden and Carsten Jung in Nijinsky. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

November 2014
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Nijinsky Synopsis

by John Neumeier

On January 19, 1919 at five o’clock in the afternoon in a ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, Vaslav Nijinsky danced publicly for the last time. He called this performance his Wedding with God.

My ballet Nijinsky begins with a realistic recreation of this situation. The choreography which follows however, visualises his thoughts, memories and hallucinations during this last performance.


Prompted by the imagined appearance of his former mentor, impresario and lover, Sergei Diaghilev, Nijinsky recalls images of his sensational career with the Ballets Russes. Dancers, as aspects of his personality, perform fragments from his most famous roles. Harlequin, the Poet in Les Sylphides, the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade and the Spectre de la rose merge and mingle with characters from his private life. His sister Bronislava (later a choreographer), his older brother Stanislav (trained also to be a dancer, but marked from childhood by signs of madness), and his mother, the dancer Eleonora Bereda, who along with his father Thomas were the children’s fi rst teachers, also appear in his dreamlike fantasy.

In another scene of the ballet, Nijinsky remembers his search for a new choreographic language. His experiments with movement result in his own original ballets L’Après-midi d’un faune, Jeux, Le Sacre du printemps and later Till Eulenspiegel.

A woman in red, Romola de Pulsky who will later become Nijinsky’s wife, crisscrosses his confused recollections. He relives their first encounter on a ship to South America and their abrupt marriage – an event causing the ultimate break with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.


Nijinsky’s madness drives him more and more inside himself. Memories of childhood, family, school, and the Mariinsky Theatre blend with nightmare visions of World War I – and his wife’s infidelity. The scandalous premiere of his ballet Le Sacre du printemps appears juxtaposed with the brutality of World War I and his brother Stanislav’s death. Romola is with him through difficult and bad times. In Nijinsky’s eyes, it is the world around him – not Nijinsky that has gone mad…

The Suvretta House performance and my ballet end with Nijinsky’s last dance – the War.

John Neumeier, Hamburg 2000


“The National Ballet of Canada’s production of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky is a triumph on all fronts… the ballet is so complex that it will take many repeated performances to reveal its riches… a ballet for the ages.” The Globe and Mail, 2014 

★★★★/4 A visually spectacular, psychologically probing voyageToronto Star, 2014 

“Astonishing… what an achievement.” NOW Magazine, 2013 

Nijinsky is a powerful, deeply moving work that leaves an impression long after the curtain comes down.” Digital, 2014


Vaslav Nijinsky
Guillaume Côté (Nov 22, 26, 28 eve, 30 mat)
Skylar Campbell (Nov 23, 27 eve, 29 mat)
Francesco Gabriele Frola* (Nov 27 mat, 29 eve) 

Romola Nijinsky
Xiao Nan Yu* (Nov 22, 26, 28 eve, 30 mat)
Sonia Rodriguez (Nov 23, 27 eve, 29 mat)
Svetlana Lunkina* (Nov 27 mat, 29 eve) 

Serge Diaghilev
Evan McKie* (Nov 22, 26, 28, 30)
Piotr Stanczyk (Nov 23, 27, 29)

* Debut

Casting subject to change.

Background Notes

Manon, Nijinsky and the Legacy of Realism
By John Reardon

Unlike other narrative art forms, ballet was late to the party when it came to realism. The reasons for this are endlessly debated, but it’s fair to say that while the novel, opera and theatre had long before begun to explore in an unvarnished way the darker, less refined and more troubling elements of life, society and human psychology, ballet, cocooned in its rarefied manner of expression, its obsession with fantasy and its inescapably stylized aesthetic, remained largely immune to this impulse. 

The novel, virtually by definition, was a document of the mundane, of the here and now, and from its inception found its raison d’être in the travails and adventures of ordinary people. Its essentially democratizing vision and endlessly flexible form made it an ideal vehicle through which to explore the messiness and unruliness of the everyday. Opera, even as popular entertainment, clung to its aristocratic origins into the 19th-century, but with the rise of verismo, it too found an expanded range of theme in the raw, violent emotions of the peasant and working class. With Ibsen and Strindberg modern drama took on a naturalism that brought a tough-minded and clinical attitude to exploring contemporary bourgeois malaises.  But well into the 20th-century, at least when it wanted to tell stories, ballet seemed content with swans and fairy tales. And then Kenneth MacMillan came along.

MacMillan brought the postwar anger and disillusionment of the British theatre into the staid world of ballet. (Seeing John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 was, he claimed, a transformative moment for him.) He thought narrative ballet had become polite, enervated and irrelevant and wanted to inject it with a jolt of life. If that life included sexual violence, madness, drug addiction, unromantic death and physical and emotional cruelty, then so be it. If ballet was to be a legitimate artistic force in the contemporary world, MacMillan felt, it would have to be able to deal with all kinds of subject matter and not worry about offending establishment sensibilities. This would mean creating a new vocabulary for dance, a vocabulary that would be adequate to the harsh new themes he wished to explore. And that is precisely what MacMillan did. As Alastair Macaulay wrote, he came to be seen as a choreographer “who enlarged ballet by deprettifying it and by forcing upon it new aspects of seriousness.”

Of all MacMillan’s full-length story ballets, Manon is perhaps his greatest and most representative triumph. Premiering in 1974 with the Royal Ballet, the Manon story, which had been explored previously in opera by both Massenet and Puccini, gave MacMillan a perfect vehicle for both his thematic and choreographic concerns. The narrative is rife with class tensions, commodified desire, betrayal and sexual coercion, with the whole dire edifice beginning in the decadence of ancient regime Paris and collapsing in tragic ignominy in the Louisiana swamps. 

At once a cry of despair for the possibility of actual love in a fallen and emotionally misshapen world, Manon nevertheless embodies an astonishing tenderness, too, revealed most poignantly in the several unforgettable duets MacMillan created for the role of the ballet’s ill-fated lovers, Manon and des Grieux. These moments, choreographed against the poverty, venality and carnality of the story’s larger social backdrop, are all the more arresting for the brief moments of reprieve they offer the audience. While never entirely absolving them of individual agency and responsibility, MacMillan insists on seeing all the characters in his ballet in a historicized light, shaped as much by social causality as by their innate urges. This is especially true of the ballet’s central character of Manon. Both victim and predator, Manon stands as one of MacMillan’s most complex characterizations and one of contemporary ballet’s greatest interpretive challenges.

The doors that MacMillan so unceremoniously kicked open with his work and its frequently confrontational aesthetic (it has to be mentioned that MacMillan also gave ballet the touchingly elegiac Song of the Earth and the droll Elite Syncopations) were knocked down by subsequent choreographers, who now felt free to use their art to tackle hitherto taboo topics. Even in artists whose work bears little stylistic connection to MacMillan, one can see this inheritance. 

John Neumeier is a case in point, specifically in a work such as Nijinsky, his ambitious and emotionally overwhelming kunstlerballet created in 2000 that, along with Manon, is a highlight of the National Ballet’s Fall Season. Although not precisely a “story ballet” and still less a strict biographical work, Nijinsky still retains many of the features of the post-MacMillan realist agenda. 

While exploring the life and character of its eponymous subject in a prismatic, multi-faceted manner, Neumeier’s approach does so without recourse to myth, symbol or allegory, the standard features of the traditional full-length ballet. His Nijinsky is a real man in a specific set of personal relationships and alive in a very specific historical context. (As well as the choreography, Neumeier created the set and costumes for the ballet, and his perspective as one of the world’s foremost authorities on Nijinsky’s life and times enhances the richly detailed effect of the ballet’s mise en scene.) At its heart is the issue of the legendary dancer’s madness, and its links with his personal relationships, his conflicted sexuality, the horrors of the First World War and ultimately his own creativity. All themes, one feels, that would have found a comfortable place in a MacMillan ballet.

Yet for all its directness of expression, for all its realism, Nijinsky, like Manon, resists the simplicity of documentary. Nor is it ever just an inert slice of life. If Nijinsky is a biography, Neumeier says, “it is a biography of the soul, a biography of feelings and sensations. . . . In the end, it’s important that it is a ballet, a work of art in itself, understandable, enjoyable, and moving—without having read a single word about Nijinsky.” It’s a sentiment that MacMillan, who sought to communicate in dance the importance of contemporary reality, would surely have embraced.

Running Time

ACT I 1 hour 2 minutes
Intermission 20 minutes
ACT II 59 minutes
Total (approx) 2 hours 21 minutes


Ballet Talks

The National Ballet invites you to attend the Nijinsky Ballet Talk one hour before every show.

Our hugely popular Ballet Talks take place in R. Fraser Elliot Hall in the Four Seasons Centre one hour before every performance.
All ticket holders are welcome. Seats for everyone!

Enhance your experience and learn more about our productions from National Ballet Artistic Staff.

Lindsay Fischer, Artistic Director, YOU dance/Ballet Master:

November 22 at 6:30pm
November 23 at 1:00pm
November 26 at 6:30pm
November 30 at 1:00pm

Peter Ottmann, Senior Ballet Master:

November 27 at 1:00pm and 6:30pm
November 28 at 6:30pm
November 29 at 1:00pm and 6:30pm

“A triumph of dramatic intensity... a spectacular, sprawling, surreal and often mind-bending homage to ballet’s most legendary male dancer” — Toronto Star