This semester has really not been my greatest at the Joyce. I enjoyed the two Graham performances I attended. Other than that, though, I liked BodyTraffic’s dancers but thought they needed better material, had similar thoughts on Complexions (though their material was more interesting than BodyTraffic’s), Ballet de Lorraine’s Unknown Pleasures was my least favorite piece I’ve seen all year, and most recently I found Gauthier Dance’s production of Goecke’s Nijinski deeply problematic, to say the least.
First off, I read this Twitter thread recently, and it is very relevant to my thoughts on this work. Go read the thread first; I’ll wait.
My first tip-off that this was going to fall into “tortured genius” stereotypes was the description of the work in the program. Phrases like “showing how closely art and madness are related” and “Nijinski will reflect on the magic and the value of art — and the high price it exacts from all creative minds” imply that mental illness is responsible for great art, both in Nijinsky’s case and more broadly. As the Twitter thread discusses, this is both incorrect and dangerous.
The piece was partially chronological, but not entirely, and tonally there was little change throughout. It’s eighty or so minutes of the same kinds of movement and emotion. Based on lighting and everyone’s jerky, angular movements, the ballet seemed to be from Nijinsky’s point of view. While Nijinsky’s movements were the most repetitive and self-focused, the uniformity of movement style across the choreography meant that Nijinsky doesn’t actually come off as that different; he’s just the one whose internal struggle we see. That could have been a positive, but the choice of this particular movement style is a choice of “other” in dance. The audience was meant to carry in our associations of dance and dancers with grace and fluidity. The jerkiness, angularity, repetition, and claw-like hand positions then immediately set Nijinsky apart as someone who is not what he should be. Further, these particular movement qualities are regularly associated with either mental illness or animalism in dance, so there was little choreographic depth or novelty to the portrayal of Nijinsky’s schizophrenia. Watching as an abled and neurotypical person felt voyeuristic and exploitative.
Even worse, I was not convinced that the piece accomplished what it set out to do. There was too little portrayal of art to “show how closely art and madness are related” or to “reflect on the magic and value of art.” I appreciated the references to the many ballets Nijinsky was known for. Some of these references were subtle, and some were… not. I think the prize for least subtle has to go to Spectre; it’s hard to get more overt than an explosion of rose petals and a dance with an armchair onstage. But these references, even the obvious ones, assumed so much familiarity with the art that they didn’t portray it, only the mental illness. It would be difficult to tell from this work alone that Nijinsky was one of the greatest and most influential male ballet dancers ever, that he was an innovative and controversial choreographer, or that he loved dance. Rosario Guerra portrayed Nijinsky’s emotions well, but he had little depth to work with.
There are a few key women in the piece. At least one is certainly intended to be Romola (Nijinsky’s wife), but I wasn’t entirely clear if this was the case for more than one. The outlines of Nijinsky’s life in the program made little mention of his sister, Bronia; otherwise I would have guessed that at least one of the female dancers portrayed her. The review in Broadway World implies that this was intended to be Nijinsky’s mother. I’m pretty sure one dancer portrayed Tamara Karsavina. Due to the lack of clear chronology or tonal/narrative arc, though, it was difficult to tell.
The character that I believe did come through as Goecke intended was Diaghilev. He was not treated sympathetically in the least. Diaghilev in this production is harsh, intimidating, cruel, and unquestionably abusive. Again, David Rodriguez portrayed him well, but there was only so much he could portray; the character as choreographed is flat. At least for this character, as opposed to others, this seemed intentional.